Meet Carl Malamud, the man making public information open to the public

‘I really believe that information has become colonised’

January 28, 2019 12:45 pm | Updated January 29, 2019 03:18 pm IST

Carl Malamud

Carl Malamud

On his Twitter bio, Carl Malamud describes himself as a civil servant. In real life, he seems to spend a lot of time coming up with new ways to get in trouble with civil servants worldwide. Over the last three years, he has been involved in six different court cases across three continents. His crime? Making public information accessible to the public.

At the 19th International World Wide Web Conference in 2010, Malamud articulated his ‘10 Rules for Radicals’. Among them was the commandment “run really fast” because, “as a small player, the elephant can step on you, but you can outrun the elephant.” Malamud, dressed in business formals ahead of what promises to be a typically hot and humid Mumbai day, has the aura of someone who never stops running.

When I meet him at a hotel in Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade, Malamud was in the middle of a whirlwind tour of India. Apart from a scheduled appearance at Delhi High Court, he has public and private engagements lined up with activists, academics, bureaucrats, tech workers and students across the country. He is here to spread the word about his mission and to recruit potential collaborators.

“Information must be free,” says Malamud. “I really believe that information has become colonised. That the publishers have overreached. They are taking property that is not theirs and guarding it.”

One-man army

The digital archives maintained by his one-man NGO, Public.Resource.Org, currently contains close to 10 million files. From complete collections of the laws of several American States to the National Building Code of India, Malamud has liberated a dizzying array of government documents from their pay-walled prisons across the world. He has painstakingly digitised and improved many of them with better formatting and accessibility features, and made them available online for anyone to access for free.

Malamud has been associated with the Internet since its infancy. He spent most of the 80s writing reference books about computer networks. While many of his peers went on to establish tech businesses and become billionaires, Malamud has spent the last 30 years putting government databases online, one at a time. “Dotcom CEOs are a dime a dozen,” he says. “Running an NGO that takes on governments is something not a lot of people know how to do.”

BIS rules online

Although the Public.Resource.Org archive currently hosts a varied selection of documents, nothing gets Malamud quite as excited as the collection of public standards from across the world. These standards, which in India are produced by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), specify norms that affect the daily lives of citizens in many ways. From the design of crash-safe motorcycle helmets to earthquake-proofing measures for buildings to tests for the purity of atta and ghee, standards define acceptable minimums everywhere.

Though all of these documents have been created using public funds, the government agencies and private contractors that publish them routinely charge citizens exorbitant fees for the privilege of accessing them. BIS, for instance, charges ₹14,000 for a copy of the National Building Code of India.

“One of the things I always look for is a government or a private party overreaching. If a standards body puts the standards online for reading, even if they prohibit commercial access, I wouldn’t have done this,” he reasons. “But when they say nobody can put these files on the Internet by any means and the price is a thousand dollars, then we have a problem.”

Malamud and his lawyers use a simple argument: “That the edicts of government should be available to citizens is a democratic principle, a rule of law.”

It is hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm as he describes the enormous multiplier effect that access to government information tends to have. “If it’s not available, nobody knows it’s there and nobody cares about it. But once it becomes available, citizens start to use it and entire industries start to get built on top of it.”

Malamud is no pirate though. While his work probably does violate the letter of the law, he stresses that he “spends a tremendous amount of time coming up with a convincing story for myself and others as to why it’s the right thing to do.”

Breakers of rules

India’s most famous rule-breaker, M.K. Gandhi, defied Britain’s salt tax to assert Indians’ right to govern themselves. In his quest to establish access to knowledge as a fundamental human right, Malamud sees standards as his salt. “My job is to confront authority and that’s exactly what Gandhi did. It’s what Martin Luther King did as well. He broke the law by sitting at lunch counters, but with the specific aim of changing the law, and not simply because he wanted to make sure kids had lunch.”

Unfortunately, the odds seem to be stacked against him. The Internet that Malamud cut his teeth on was a truly egalitarian network whose very architecture prioritised freedom and open access. Today’s digital world, controlled and monitored by governments and giant tech firms, is a stark contrast. Malamud appears to be somewhat of an anachronism against this backdrop. While he soldiers on on his lonely quest to liberate public knowledge, today’s brightest young minds are engaged in building technologies designed to hoover up ever-increasing amounts of private data.

Outnumbered and outgunned he may be, but Malamud is optimistic. “I want to let young hackers know that you can do more with technology than simply come up with an app that’ll make you money. You could actually make your world a better place.”

The freelance journalist is based in Goa. Twitter: @visvak

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