Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Indian Middle Class and its engagement with Social Change

Neha Bhat, an LLM student from American University, Washington College of Law sends in a summary of her paper ,"The Revolution Will Only Be Televised: Indian Middle Class and It's Engagement with Social Change. As per her abstract: 
"Through this paper, the author proposes to examine this phenomenon of television-based and televised social activism in India. Since 2011, large scale public protests have gripped India on issues of corruption, freedom of speech and expression and now sexual violence against women. this paper examines these protests, their success and failure and the direction for future engagement on social change by Indians."

“It was like fever. Everyone wanted to go.” 
- Michael Walzer, Dissent 

It was something like a fever. A highly contagious fever, that, upon the slightest of contact, engulfed everything, and everyone that came in its’ way. The use of ‘protest’ as a form of resistance is as old as resistance itself is in India. However, in little over 2 years since the Arab Spring, the people of India have reclaimed the ‘protest’ as a site of their revolution to affect change as no other. 2011 saw the common man in India rise in protest against government institutions, and against organized ‘power’ in an unprecedented fashion. The solidarity with the figure of the ‘protestor’ of 2010 continued well into 2012 and received an unexpected fillip just last week. The current use of public protests started in 2011, with the issue of corruption and has now expanded to include in its fold protests against government curbs on freedom of expression as well as the issue of rape and sexual violence against women. 

The different scenarios of protests that India has witnessed in the past year and half do not share any common factor. Each chain of protest focused on a different set of issues—corruption, freedom of speech and rape. However, on a closer examination, a common denominator does indeed emerge. All these protests have largely channelized the demands of the people pressing for changes in governance and rule of law issues in India. People are dissatisfied with the abject apathy displayed by law enforcement and every part of the system of governance in the country towards those who they seek to govern. The increasingly dissatisfied people are taking to different digital forums to express their views on the state of affairs in the country. However, instead of working towards addressing the breakdown of law and order and listening to the citizen grievances; the government seeks to blame the media for highlighting these issues and in order to preserve its own image, seeks to control dissemination of information. 

There is a palpable, tangible desperation witnessed in these protests, which points a very culpable finger at the unresponsive government and its apathy towards its citizens. But, more importantly, the sheer strength of the protests also point to a deeper malaise- that of the very real slide into an ‘administrative vacuum’ clearly underway in India. This has led the country towards a situation of complete breakdown of law and order, leaving the judicial branch almost completely ineffectual. 

The protests signaled that something had perhaps fundamentally changed about our ideas of governance, democracy and how a country should be ruled. For the first time the Indian middle class that usually stood behind a television camera crew to ‘come’ on news, is willingly bearing the brunt of physical violence from the State[1] and becoming the news. Just to make itself heard. However the personal motivation behind the protests aside, they are indeed peculiar in their own way. What is striking about these protests is the fact that they were not structured but largely impulsive and spontaneous. The middle class has responded to these events in their individual capacity, only becoming a collective at the site of the protest. There have been differences and divisions between those who have protested—each group within the larger collective has had its own set of demands and expected outcomes. However, the spontaneity of the protests has ensured that in the broader context, there is no singular, monolithic group, with same demands and arguments participating in the protests. 

And yet, in spite of such large scale calls for change, such deep, long standing protests, there is no actual change coming to the country. The more people have protested and dissented, the more they have become dissatisfied and restless. More agitated and more violent also. And yet, this dissatisfaction, this restlessness, this protest— it has not changed anything. 

The question worthy of being asked is why; a common, unified intention of a large, strong collective formed of middle class people has not transformed itself into a more concrete action base? There is so much desperation in people, so much palpable frustration then why isn’t anything changing? Why, despite the fact that these movements have been momentarily successful, they are not sustainable in long term? Why have the movement(s) peaked and died before any actual change has been affected on ground? Why was there a very rapid engagement and involvement with the movement(s) and then, just as rapid a disengagement with them? The responses to these questions hold the key to understanding and running successful campaigns for social change in India. 

Long term engagement as needed for social change has not been the hallmark of the protest movements India has witnessed. For e.g. although people did pour out on streets to support Anna Hazare, subsequent to the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Lower House of the Parliament, none of the calls for a public protest by Hazare (December 2011 and thereafter) have seen the kind of outpour of support as was seen between April and September 2011.[2] People’s association with the Anna Hazare movement ended when the Jan Lokpal Bill was passed by the Lower House of the Parliament—however the Jan Lokpal Bill has not yet become an Act because it remains to be passed by the Upper House of the Parliament. Such short term and limited engagement with movements for social change also gives the impression that beyond a certain point, unless people are able to witness tangible changes resulting from their participation, they cannot be motivated to keep providing support for such movements. This impacts the longevity and long term feasibility of a movement. 

Second, is the issue of the lack of a unified leadership in these protests— even within the larger collective, there were various smaller collectives of people—each having their own set of demands of how the issue should be resolved and with specific ideas of what outcomes would indicate that the movement has been successful. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the current status of the movement against corruption. In August 2012, almost a year after the anti-corruption movement was first launched, and after a very public disagreement over the future direction of their movement,[3] Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal announced their spilt. Although Kejriwal’s NGO, India against Corruption still frequently carries out ‘public exposes’ of high level corruption in the government, devoid of the larger support that Team Anna, most question the legitimacy of Kejriwal’s intention in conducting such public exposures. Many have even questioned his participation in the anti-corruption protests 2011 and labeled it as a publicity gimmick, orchestrated to facilitate the launch of a political party. 

For a movement to survive in the long term such multiplicity of narratives is not particularly advantageous. First, such divergence it weakens the exclusivity that the movement enjoyed and two; it negatively impacts the credibility and influence of the movement. Such divisiveness is also connected to the underlying issue of power and influence that a collective can have. The State as an all-powerful entity vests control over every situation. And the only manner in which accountability can be expected from the State is by mounting a strong and credible opposition. However, dissolution of movements that have previously enjoyed a strong public support base signals the ends of a credible front of opposition that could challenge government action and demand credible government response. 

There is also, symptomatic in these movements, oversimplification and partial representation of underlying issues, which may prompt a misdirected response to tackle the problem. For e.g. the movement against corruption linked eradication of corruption to the creation of an impartial Ombudsman authority, as if the mere creation of the office of an Ombudsman (which is yet to happen in any case) would instantaneously ensure that there would be no future exchange of bribes and that no one would indulge in corruption anyone. However, as long as the benefits of corruption exceed the costs of corruption, creation of an Ombudsman authority is not going to stop anyone from indulging in corruption. Creation of the office of an Ombudsman is not going to halt corruption unless people situate themselves and their customary habit of proffering a bribe to be a part of the problem and reform their own habit. 

Bill Moyer classifies a social movement as having eight stages.[4] His classification gives us an insight into the reasons why the protests mounted by the Indian middle class since 2011 disintegrated very quickly.[5] The failure can in large part be attributed to a deep sense of disillusionment with how these movements shaped up—the movement against anti-corruption disintegrated at its peak (or shortly thereafter) because of lack of leadership as well as lack of clarity over the long term goals of the movement. The goals of the people protesting seemed divergent from the goals of the movement—people were opposed to corruption and bribery but here was a movement posited in the implementation of a legislation to create an impartial Ombudsman authority to try corruption cases. The problem arose because no one answered the questions, ‘What happens after the Jan Lokpal Bill is passed? How will it eliminate corruption, if it can at all eliminate corruptuon? How do we keep the movement going?’ 

Clearly, while some short term successes have been achieved, no long term changes have occurred on issues of corruption, freedom of speech and expression or even sexual violence. Despite that, to classify these protests as complete failures would be wrong. Although replete with various problems outlined above, these protests cannot be considered to be a mere ‘weekend’ display of sound and fury. They have prompted wide spread, increased and systematic coverage of corruption, sexual violence and other issues of concern in the media thus supporting the call for increased accountability. 

The protests have also, as Moyer explains, put the State on a defensive, which results in two different kinds of action from the State. One, which discredits the movement—for e.g. the criticisms levied against Arvind Kejriwal after he launched his political party and two, which tries to consolidate the State’s position as the first responder, for e.g. the swift, even proprio motu action taken by the government (nab the culprits, propose amendments to criminal law, set up a judicial committee and now the Presidential Ordinance etc.) in light of the gang rape incident in Delhi. This helps the State to consolidate its own position and show that it is doing something while at the same time propagates the idea that there is no credible counter narrative that exists to the narrative that it proffers. 

Hopefully, these protests signal a beginning—that we have at least started to think about change. The change in voter’s demography must be understood—the protestor is more likely to be a 20 year old college student, waiting to cast his first, perhaps second vote in the 2013 General Elections who is going to inherit the systems we set up or dismantle today. What we now need to understand is how to channelize this spontaneous anger and energy and get it to sustain a movement for social change that dismantles and creates efficient institutions simultaneously. 

The first step in sustaining a long term movement therefore is the necessity to mount a credible counter narrative. Even in spite of the gruesome reality of sexual violence against women in India, in a very Todd Akin-esque fashion, many members of the political class and otherwise have commented on the character of women who are subjected to sexual offences[6] [7]as well as those who have participated in these protests.[8] When talking about sexual violence against women, the counter narrative will necessarily have to discredit the existing mainstream narrative that purports sexual violence against women as an issue of criminality caused by the actions of women themselves. It is important to explain how the basis of these crimes is tied strongly to the society’s view on the role and status of women, on our understanding of gender, morality and power relations and on patriarchy. The counter narrative has to attack the attitudes of the people, because the most important element of change required is in our attitudes. 

Two, we have to acknowledge that the counter narrative will consist of multiple strains of required action— reform will be required on various fronts viz. legal, social, economic, political. For any efforts to yield results action and to ensure that the movement’s objectives are obtained, steps will have to be taken in all directions simultaneously. A sequencing of actions will only mean that our responses will ever remain reactive— our response would always be to punish the commission of an offence and not prevent it. For e.g. the movement against corruption has demanded for the creation of an impartial Ombudsman authority to try cases of corruption. However, there exists a legal framework in India to deal with issues of corruption. Instead of creating new mechanisms it should be our endeavor to reform the existing mechanism and ensure it works more efficiently. It is also necessary to strengthen our governance structure and criminally hold liable those who perpetuate corruption within the political class. At the same time, it is equally important to create public awareness about how individual behavior of people, when they participate in exchange of bribes is counterproductive to the fight against corruption. If both these efforts are combined and mounted as part of the same fight against corruption, we may well be looking at curbing the menace of corruption. 

Writing for the New Yorker in 2010, Malcolm Galdwell stated that high-risk activism, the kind that results in change in a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon that cannot result from acquaintanceship built over social media forums like Facebook and Twitter.[9] The collective of people mounting the counter narrative is not one huge, monolithic group. It is comprised of various small collectives—each speaks with a distinct voice of its own. Some sign petitions online, some circulate memes. Some make videos, others write opinion pieces and some others just ‘share’ everything, others get out on the street and protest. Every medium will have to be exploited for the benefit of the movement—whether it be writing of public opinion pieces, videos pontificating on issues, memes, academic writing, speeches—everything. There are obvious advantages to the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter in organizing movements. First, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can be used to organize and gather people to protest. Two, ‘sharing’ on Facebook is indeed the quickest and the surest way of ensuring that public opinion pieces are read. True, no revolution can be fought only in the digital arena. But the digital arena does possess tremendous potential which can be exploited to spread public awareness about these issues. 

Finally, there is going to be a continuum of actors interested in any movement for social change ranging from the State, to the law enforcement, to the lobby and interest groups, to media and finally the citizen who is affected by these issues. Besides these obvious actors, there will be many others whose interests in the movement will not be apparent but who will stake a claim to it nevertheless. It is critical that progress forward is made through consultation and negotiation. Pitting people and viewpoints in opposition will not take the movement forward, it will only stagnate progress. Those who protest will have to understand that control on some aspects will have to be relinquished in favor of the State—especially those involving political, policy and legal framework questions. Similarly, there will be times when State will have to relinquish control as well— it will have to get in touch with the expectations of the people and understand what change the people want and commit itself to implementing this change. 

[1] Manu Joseph, Orphans of the Great Republic: The Rise of the New Rebel available at
[2] Anna Hazare begins latest Hunger Strike Despite Dwindling Support for Campaign available at
[3] Vibhuti Agarwal, Anna Hazare’s spilt from Kejriwal available at
[5] Ibid. According to Moyers, this is stage 5 of the social movement where expectations of rapid success of the movement are not met, thus leading to hopelessness, burn-out and characterized by low media coverage, less numbers at demonstrations and long term goals remaining unmet. 
[6] Park Street case no rape, but a deal gone sour: MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar available at
[7] Sabyasachi Bandhopadhyay, CPM MLA asks how much CM will ‘charge’ to get raped available at
[8] Painted women protesting, not students: Abhijeet Mukherjee available at
[9] Malcolm Gladwell, Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted available at

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Meeting on the Future of the Internet - Mired in lack of transparency

Level of Transparency these days depicted above

Why is transparency such a difficult proposition nowadays? It seems to be constantly popping up as an issue in nearly any large bureaucratic process. There are only two possible answers of course - either a belief that true democracy (which requires information as a basis for choices) is untenable as a governing mechanism, or that democracy is undesirable to those "leaders" unwilling to conduct transparent proceedings. I would lean towards the latter. For those more interested in the reasoning behind this, I've written another post here on a concept called 'the iron law of meritocracy' that may be relevant. Anyhow, I digress from the purpose of this post and that is point out that the future of the internet is now being discussed and possibly decided behind closed doors in the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) from Dec 3rd to Dec 14th, 2012. 

It may be redundant to stress the importance that the internet has made in the world today, as anyone reading this is likely to have a very healthy appreciation of the tremendous role the internet has played in leveling the field for information spreading, opinion sharing and ability of dissenting voices to be heard and recognized. Yet, even aside from the direct role that the internet has played, it has also had cascading effects, much like a vaccine for an eradicated disease which has benefitted generations of people aside from the ones who've been given the vaccine. The reason that it has been able to play such a large role is the unregulated and decentralized nature of the internet. Of course, the infrastructure behind it and optimizing it's spread and growth may require some regulation, but it is important to not let this be the disguise under which the internet itself is controlled. About a decade ago, a group of 4 engineers in Microsoft wrote an impressive, almost 'prophetic', paper entitled "The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution" on how the growth of a network system such as the internet would ensure that information continues to spread at a increasingly faster rate as technology grows, regardless of attempts to restrain it, due to it's inherent decentralized nature. Whether this continues to remain true remains to be seen. 

An agency of the UN known as "International Telecommunication Union" (ITU) is hosting the WCIT to go over and revise the decades old International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) which govern standards and regulations for information and communication technologies. The ITU, as noted by Wired, does a lot of important work, such as "sets spectrum and technology standards, has done much to improve global interoperability and efficiency, and helped increase access to information and communication technologies in developing nations." Having said that, the preparatory documents to the important  upcoming meeting have been very secretive, with only member governments and a few other parties being given access rights. Some leaked documents have made their way out though and have shown to be potentially very worrying as they include proposals for restrictions on online privacy, free expression, access to information, and ICT use around the world. 

Civil society, of course, quickly banded together and proceeded to draft and sign into documentation their concerns of the effects this would have on human rights (available as a petition here, do check and sign if you agree), to which the ITU secretary stated, "WCIT-12 is not in any way going to be challenging Article 19, or indeed any other article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights". While a mere statement seems to hardly address the concerns, if true, it doesn't explain the lack of transparency or the high barriers it takes to join the proceedings ($2,000 - $35,000 annual membership costs). These high barriers leave out some of most important stake holders in the whole process - civil society and human rights organizations. Not to mention that the current process is giving all power to governments, when we currently have governments of the most powerful democracy (USA) and the largest democracy (India) occupying spots 1 and 2 respectively on Google's list of user surveillance requests - an indication of clear disregard for information privacy and freedom of speech. Yes, the country with the most power in the ITU, is also the one that is number 1 by a large margin in Google's list. How much confidence does that inspire in the decision making process of the ITU? I can't claim to be very convinced, especially when what is required for true growth from here is more power to other voices from around the world and not more centralization. 

Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, we will be able to say that the Internet is still as mobilizing as it has been thus far. 

For those interested in following more on this, you can check out the following:

A recent event by Stanford "Is this the End of the Internet"(video), 
Google's Take Action page
As well as the petition mentioned above. 

(Thanks to Kruttika for the links)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Corruption in Customs: Strategies to Get More Out of International Trade

All countries, including Turkey, participating in the WTO believe that there has been some economic benefit in adopting the WTO agreements; however, there is considerable disagreement as to how much benefit the agreements have actually produced. A study by the University of Michigan found that if all trade barriers in agriculture, services, and manufactures were reduced by 33% as a result of the Doha Development Agenda, there would be an increase in global welfare of $574.0 billion. A 2008 study by World Bank Lead Economist Kym Anderson found that global income could increase by more than $300 billion per year, $250 billion of which would go to the developing world. Others had been predicting more modest outcomes, e.g. world net welfare gains ranging from $84 billion to $287 billion by the year 2015.

Corruption in customs as one of the trade barriers which act as an additional tax or fee impedes the free trade; therefore causes huge losses of share that the developing countries would have in benefits of international trade. If Anderson’s above mentioned estimate is true, basically we might content that 250 billion USD gets less and less at every corruption case occurring in the customs of developing countries.

Corruption also causes inefficiency in business having bad impact on international trade. When the customs officials harass firms with demand of bribery, firms spend human and monetary resources resulting in inflation of labor and operational costs. This problem is even worse for small and medium enterprises as the bribe amounts that they have to pay at customs might substantially affect their capacity to do business across borders. Even if my main focus is in Turkey, I think developing countries where corruption in customs is widespread share similar features with regards to main reasons of corruption and strategies to combat against it. In my opinion in order for the efforts to combat against corruption in customs to be effective we need an integrity and ethical government oriented approach to the problem. Ethical government requires all the powers – legislature, bureaucracy and judiciary – to act in conformity with ethical principles. An ethics system that excludes one of these powers or branches of government is ready to collapse any time; thus preventing our chance to make improvement in this fight. Only a comprehensive reform process starting from the restructuring of customs administration can break countries out of existing vicious circles linking corruption and under-development. In order to achieve that, we need to be reformist. In order to achieve this, we need strong intent of highest ranking administrators in our case, i.e. Minister of Trade and Customs- to eliminate all kinds of corruption and inefficiency at customs because attitudes, perceptions, and actions of them are fundamental to any efforts to initiate and sustain reform. High ranking administrators have to take determined positions against corruption to be models of integrity for low ranking officials who work at the heart of operations. Second, what we need is not partial projects targeting specific areas of customs like computerization or modernization projects. What we need in Turkey and other developing countries where corruption is widespread, is a more revolutionary approach which is restructuring the customs administration. First, we need to change our perception about corruption which will be conducted through training programs for customs officials, seminars for firm representatives doing business across the border, conferences for raising awareness of society that corruption is an epidemic, not a right, tax or usual course of business.

Second, we need to build a very clear and standardized procedural system through concise and accessible legislation, eliminating all grey areas that cause opportunities of corruption. Third, we need to make sure that if a customs official violates his ethical and criminal obligations under codes of conduct at various laws defining corruption, the penalty system is applied to everyone equally and strictly without any exemptions or exceptions. With regard to corruption investigations carried out by the Turkish Inspection Boards, the need for a prior authorization from the hierarchy when investigating some categories of public officials hampers the investigation. There is an urgent need for better co-ordination of the system currently in place for combating corruption. The designation of a body with sufficient independence responsible for promulgating and monitoring the implementation of anti-corruption measures could be helpful in this respect. Also in Turkey, asset disclosure records of customs officials are unavailable to the public and whistle-blower protections are virtually non-existent. Journalists investigating corruption face intimidation and harassment with one fatality occurring over the reporting period.
A recent empirical study on corruption at customs of Bolivia, Pakistan, and Philippine might be taken as an example of methods for eliminating corruption at customs because each one of the countries are highly different from each other and they carry some similar features with Turkey in sense of international trade and development.

The study shows that the strategies based on repression and positive incentives are effective in regulating a situation of low corruption and preventing its further development but experience shows that these tools cannot correct a situation of widespread corruption. Therefore, I advise, restructuring of the procedures that leads to an important reduction of the opportunities of corruption should be at the core of the strategy. Furthermore a high degree of transparency in design and implementation should be maintained. Obtaining the active support of groups benefiting from reform, proceeding step by step, combining restructuring with changes in management, monitoring implementation and securing computer systems are also crucial for the comprehensive reform. Above all, as I have mentioned before political will remains key for a successful implementation. The case studies showed that it is crucial to have strong commitments on the part of both political leaders and the customs director.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How can we make drugs cheaper?

WHO members and observers have currently gathered (Nov 26-28th) at WHO headquarters to discuss and try to implement an R&D treaty which would de-link R&D costs from drug prices. In simple terms, this means that if implemented, it would lead to a huge jump in affordability of medicines around the world, by diverting the massive costs from the consumers to a large global fund, externally managed. (presumably governments chip in). As to why they costs should be diverted... The simple one to me is that people do not (consciously) choose to be sick; so there is no reason for rich people to have cures while poor people can only watch. Of course, there needs to be a practical, 'fair' way to do this. That's what this current treaty is looking into.  

[I said 'consciously' in the above line, because it is true that issues of general health, hygiene, educated choices, etc all play a part in people falling sick; as does simple bad luck. While it definitely requires inter-disciplinary attention, I believe trying to solve health and education issues as primary ones is the most sensible approach] 

This treaty has been under negotiation for more than 2 years now and that in itself is a big step as, if implemented if would mark a big change in approach towards the current market based pharmaceutical innovation system. Why is this important? Because the current system comes with several problems that are caused directly by this linkage between R&D costs and drug prices. Let me lay some out: 

1. Drugs are not like other market goods where the market tells you which drugs are most appreciated. Rather, drugs are taken for combination of the following reasons: Disease + doctor's advice + insurance considerations. Thus the usual 'free market' considerations do not take place here. Diseases are something no one values; doctor's advice is somewhat trustworthy, but still not the person's own judgment; and insurance, when present, quite often determines what drugs people eventually go in for, if anything at all. 

2. Having innovation dependent on the market causes innovations to be directed towards the market. Simple basic logic. This means that drugs are not made for diseases or afflictions which affect poor people more than rich people. This is highlighted in the case of developing country diseases, which rarely, if at all, affect developed countries (i.e., Richer markets). With much of the current capital present in the developed countries, this leaves the poorer countries at the mercy of the pharmaceuticals present in the richer countries. 

3. Following on from the above point, if/when drugs are made for diseases that are present in poorer countries, they are generally priced at a very high rate as compared to the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of those in poorer countries. A lot of public backlash regarding pricing strategies have fortunately led to some drugs being differentially priced in different countries in recent times. There is still much to be done though. Similarly, even poor people in richer countries are priced out of these drugs. In fact, in some cases (insurance-less for instance), access to these medicines may be much harder for them as compared to people in poorer countries due to inflated insurance based prices. 

4. Aside from the above mentioned circumstances, having a health system where the incentives for pharmaceuticals are laid out based on purchasing rather than treating/curing, is somewhat counterintuitive. For instance, it may not make any good business sense for a pharmaceutical company to find a vaccine for a disease, since that would mean eating into their future customer base. Similarly, it also makes more business sense for pharma companies to find palliatives rather than actually curing a disease in a person, as it would mean they need to constantly buy more medicines. I have no idea about pharmaceutical processes, but I find it amazing that the common cold has not been cured, while baldness creams of all sorts have reached the market, not to mention that man has landed machinery on Mars. 

And the reasons go on.. But I think these are the main ones. 

So, while WHO members meet to discuss and try to come up with a treaty that would solve these issues... There is one notable organization that is protesting it - The Wellcome Trust. 

It is essential to engage with industry effectively. We are concerned that the report's emphasis on the delinkage of R&D costs from the pricing of end-products may hamper this. The pharma industry are important partners and should be galvanised to develop business models that address the needs of the poorest consumers.

For an organization that has a statement of "Our funding supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities, with the aim of improving human and animal health." as the first line on their website ... This surely is a stupid way of telling the world that they care more about the welfare of existing institutional players, than the reason that those players and institutes exist - i.e., than for 'improving human and animal health'. Not to mention, that this treaty doesn't ask pharmaceuticals to do charity work, but wants to change the flow of funding as coming from a global fund, rather than the patients. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Academia struggles to pay up as Journal prices soar!

What is "Open Access"? Explained by PhD comics

In yet another story headlining publishing houses, India's top science officials have expressed concern over not being able to afford subscriptions to international science journals, budgeted at Rs 500 crores for the 5 year period covered by the 12th five-year plan (2012-2017). 

The issue is concisely captured in the quote in the LiveMint article here: "“I’ll try my best to get this (budget for journals) passed, though I doubt whether the Planning Commission will allot Rs.500 crore just for journals,” Ravi (Science minister at the time) said last week as part of a longer speech on the 60th anniversary of the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (Niscair), a CSIR body. Access to academic journals is a basic necessity for professional scientists. Researchers compete to publish their best research in top academic journals and the frequency of articles in top journals is crucial to career progression as well as the general advancement of science." 

According to the article, prices have gone up about 5 times since the previous 5 year plan! It's not only Indian officials who are uncomfortable with the rise in prices. Tired of rising prices, Harvard too, had issued a memo earlier this year requesting their faculty to make their work available freely and/or in open access journals. 

(On a tangentially related note, there is an interesting piece advocating the abolishment of law reviews here

But why this sudden rise in prices? Off the top of my head, and (please note, full disclaimer) without looking into the working of the publishing industry and the data etc, I would like to hazard a guess as to what is probably one factor. 

Copyrights are a set of incentives to encourage proliferation of knowledge and information. When it comes to academic work, there are several incentives present for research - the primary ones being reputational benefits, requirements for positions and promotions, and scientific curiousity. The incentives for academics to publish this research, accordingly, also primarily stem from these factors.

However, copyright steps in and gives (financial) incentives to "Publishers" instead of academics, to increase publications. (And in doing so, it disregards the incentives that are already present for the academics to publish). And as all businesses go, business sense requires going after more profits. This does not mean that publishing houses do not require capital or revenues to continue operating, of course. I would not even go so far as to call them a 'necessary evil'.. and would simply call them 'necessary'. However, our policy seems to be geared towards the 'middleman', rather than the creators. And without strict regulation, it is but natural that the middleman rises in importance in the whole equation. The sudden rise? Because with the internet and of course the recession, they seem to be losing control of their hold on the market, and are trying to grab back as much as they can, so they can continue as before. 

With the rise of the digital world however, much of the capital required to disperse information is no longer required. The printing press is replaced with a computer and an internet connection. However, in order to organise the flood of information, there definitely needs to be some organization and quality control. Will open access journals step up to fit this role? We are yet to see. However, given the rising costs of journals, academic institutions may start seeing it fit to invest more into quality control of open access, than traditional methods. Indeed, UK has already said they are going to fully support open access journals in physics, allowing readers free access to journals for particle physics. There may be some controversy over their particular business model, but it shows a big move towards experimenting with non-traditional methods. I see it quite likely that other countries / institutes will be following suit, or trying their own methods of promoting open access. 

I'll leave you with what seems to be a good source for finding open access journals - the Directory of Open Access Journals. 

As posted by me on

Friday, October 12, 2012

Can Open Access coincide with Patent law?

Can Open Access principles coincide with Patents? I review a paper which says this just may be possible. As posted by me on SpicyIP.

[Warning: Long post that mostly reviews a paper describing a type of license which may reduce unnecessary patent litigation as well as promote an 'open access' approach. Actual review starts from below the dotted line. ]

Who would've thought patent-wars could have become a topic of discussion amongst even those with traditionally no interest in 'lawyery stuff'! Good or bad, one side effect that the Apple-Samsung fiasco has had, has been to turn the public's attention span towards the topic of patents. For example, the New York Times published a 7 page article online entitled "The Patent, Used as a Sword" that seems to be doing the rounds on the social network circles. Most of those 7 pages are in detailed instances of patents harming innovation. Just before that, The Atlantic even went to the extent of pulling out a 'legal' paper to review for their audience, in their article entitled, "The Case for Abolishing Patents". 

However, it's not just a few general public news sources that feel that patent laws have gone out of control. Indeed, quite a few academics and practitioners have been writing on this for years. Way back in the 1950s, Fritz Machlup, who had written 'An Economic Review of the Patent System', asserted to the US Congress that "If we did not have a patent system, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge of its economic consequences, to recommend instituting one. But since we have had a patent system for a long time, it would be irresponsible, on the basis of our present knowledge, 
to recommend abolishing it." Unfortunately, since then, patent rights have only grown stronger, and of course the TRIPS Agreement was thrown in to make sure they don't go anywhere. And the various other "free trade" agreements are being signed, lobbied for, etc to harmonize these stronger rights. All this has led to several patent thickets  massive litigation expenses amongst other things, in turn leading to a diversion of resources from their optimal use - actual working of technology, and further innovation. 

At the same time, civil society and academics have been playing an increasingly active role in standing up for, and representing public interests. It is in this context that I will be reviewing a proposal that is discussed in Berkeley Professors Jason Shultz and Jennifer Urban's soon to be published paper entitled "Protecting Open Innovation: A New Approach to Patent Threats, Transaction Costs, and Tactical Disarmament". [I was lucky enough to have been part of a seminar in which an earlier version of this draft was presented and discussed]. Their proposal rides on the same spirit that the Creative Commons movement did in the Copyright arena and is certainly an interesting one, and is possibly a solution to at least the software patent issues, if not more sectors. 


Their starting premise is similar to that of Machlup's, mentioned above. However, Shultz and Urban are trying to find a solution to the problems that Open Innovation Communities face by virtue of not taking the 'patent' path to do their innovation. We'll go with their term "Open Innovation Communities" (OICs), but I think they are really referring to any 'community/company/person' who is averse to a strongly pro-patent approach to innovation. But first - why do these communities choose to not take the patent path?Shultz and Urban identify three main reasons: 

a) The enormous resources required to acquire a useful patent portfolio. 
b) On principle. Many innovators, especially in the software field, view patents as unnecessary restrictions on the flow of information, and ones that help big corporates bully smaller innovators. There are also those who do not want to contribute to the mess that they feel the patent system has created already. 
c) There is nothing keeping a 'defensive' patent portfolio from being used offensively. 

This third reason, while being the basis for most of their paper, seems to be curiously phrased. Unless they are worried that their successors will use a portfolio gathered for defensive purposes, for offensive purposes later on, this doesn't seem to be that much of an incentive to stay away from the patent system. However, if there was a way to ensure that others use patents only defensively, there may be more of an incentive for innovators to engage more with the patent system. Such a system, wherein innovators are obliged to only use patent portfolios defensibly is in fact what Schultz and Urban go on to propose. 

[Defensive use of patents would mean to acquire patents only to defend themselves from lawsuits brought on them for infringement of someone else's patent, or from patent trolls.] 

Having identified these reasons, they flip them around to see the 'values' that might incentivise OICs. They are:
a) Collective benefit outweighs the collective costs (including fiscal, legal, information and transaction)
b) Cultural and political alignment with OIC values - ie, openness, and free-er flow of information, along with the view point that the dominant 'incentive' theory (exclusion rights are required to incentivise production) is not the only one present; and in fact the 'exclusion' approach comes in the way of their own preferred approach, be it motivation from benefit to reputation, importance of developing know-how, stimulating demand for a related product, etc. I.e., it disturbs their freedoms. 
c) When the 3rd condition is flipped around, it is seen that 'innovation conditions' which provide reliability and reduce risk of all participants are desired. (the most important criteria in my mind) 

In other words, a strategic 'patent' equivalent to the GNU General Public License and Creative Commons approach that exists in the 'copyright' field.  In their words, "By conditioning79 the license terms upon the licensee’s commitment to freedom and openness, copyleft OICs argue, they can ensure that as the network of users grows, new users enhance the value of the network through ongoing commitments to the same principles and norms. This both creates reliability by creating enforceable norms and limits gamesmanship." 

After extracting principles and values important to OICs, they take a look at the 4 existing patent defense strategies and the limitations that exist with them. Of these four, the first is of most interest, primarily because it fails due to a substantial failing of the patent system - information gathering.

Defensive Publication: While publishing information about OIC technology ideally should serve as prior art so that future patents aren't granted on this technology, in reality this doesn't work too well. This is because Patent offices need to be able to find this information, as well as that OICs engineers are generally the ones who put out the information and not in the same way that a lawyer would read or organize it. On top of that, patent attorneys can easily 'write around' prior art claims so that boolean  or linguistic searches do not throw up the same results.

The other three strategies include Patent Pledges, 'Peace' provisions and patent pools. A combination of vagueness, unreliability or insufficient incentives seem to limit these models and hence they go on to propose their own new innovative model - the Defensive Patent License.

"The DPL is a standardized open patent license designed to encourage the creation of a broad, decentralized network of OICs that both patent their innovations for committedly defensive purposes and license them on a royalty-free basis to any others who will do the same." With the objective of fulfilling the above three mentioned value based criteria, the DPL is offered with the following four conditions:
  1. 1) Every DPL user (i.e. licensor or licensee) will forgo any offensive patent infringement actions against any other DPL user; 
  2. 2) Subject to Condition 4, every DPL user will offer her entire current and future patent portfolio under the DPL;
  3. 3) Every DPL user will bind any successor-in-interest to any part of her patent portfolio to her obligations under the DPL; and 
  4. 4) If a DPL user wishes to stop offering her patents under the DPL, she may do so but only with six months’ notice to existing DPL users and future parties. She must continue to grant, and may not revoke, any licenses that are in place before the end of the notice period. Once she stops offering the DPL, other DPL users are free to revoke their licenses to her at will. 
If you take in the implications of these four conditions, you see that it is quite a simple, yet effective model. They go on to explain how such a model would better address the limitations that other defensive patenting techniques face while at the same time maintaining the values dear to the OICs. The basic information gathering issue is addressed by all DPL members having to register on a DPL website which would coordinate the members and their patents under the DPL. By pooling in their resources in this manner, their access to knowledge and technology increases by several factors, and their risk decreases at the same time.

While they have great points and certainly make a strong case for the initiation of such a model, I do have certain concerns regarding it.

a) It encourages patenting where patents would not otherwise be granted.

  • This is described as an advantage of the system, but I'd rather frame it as an advantage to the system. More patents in the DPL pool help the DPL be more successful. But for companies to patent when they otherwise wouldn't, seems wasteful on it's own. Whether it would be wasteful in aggregate, would depend on the success of the DPL. And there may be a cyclic problem here, as little success = less patenting = little success. 
  • By encouraging patents here, it removes incentives for patent-free innovation such as prizes, which may fall more squarely within OIC values. Having said that, it seems likely that OICs are more prevalent in certain sectors of technology such as software, computer based, mobile, etc. And the only major sector where 'prize systems' are still one of the few alternative innovation options are in the pharmaceutical world, where the the capital investments are simply too large to share freely. 
b) As noted by them, requiring an 'all-in' approach, would be problematic for many companies, especially the larger ones or ones that have a multi prong business approach with proprietary technology along with 'open' technology. They simply say that on consideration, an all in approach seems less harmful, than a partially in approach which may increase gamemanship (as companies may only put in less useful patents). However, they also leave open the possibility of allowing partial portfolios through means of specific technical standards, or some such objective criteria. The partially-in, based on objective/standardized criteria seems a much more 'business' friendly approach to me. 

All in all, it seems to be a very well thought out 'fightback' to the crazy patent wars, thickets and trolls that we have happening regularly now, especially in the software patent world. I wouldn't want to be the one in charge of maintaining the DPL website with such vasts amount of information on it, but that seems like a technicality that can be figured out along the way since the website itself does not do any 'enforcement'. The draft license is available in the index of their paper. You can also hear Shultz and Urban speak about it here. And for those of you who want to contribute or check over the language of the DPL, it's available for comments on their website here

Thursday, August 30, 2012

An 'innovative' decision in the Apple Samsung case?

As posted by me on SpicyIP

" For us this lawsuit has always been about something much more important than patents or money. It’s about values. We value originality and innovation and pour our lives into making the best products on earth." 

- Tim Cook, in his memo to Apple's corporate employees after the $1.049 billion dollar verdict that went Apple's way in it's smartphone patent battle with Samsung, in US District Court, Northern District of California.   

 "Good artists copy. Great artists steal

- Steve Jobs, 1994 

This post was meant to review the implications that this decision would have on innovative activity, however I came across some very interesting bits while I was looking deeper into the decision. As far as my take goes on it, the short version is that while Apple is no saint, Samsung did willingly copy certain features and designs. And Samsungs 141 pages of internal documents pretty much admitting the same certainly helped their decision. However, the jury did a very suspect job in deciding the verdict here and there are certainly shoddy aspects that went into the decision. In any case, this is not over yet and this will almost certainly go into appeal. Having said that, at least on first look, it appears that this is good for innovative activity. For the long version and the implications and explanations, read on.

Apple started off by claiming almost everything they could think of - a huge list of trademarks, trade dress registrations (including on the packaging boxes!), design patents and utility patents. Frankly, some of their claims just seem ridiculous to me - take a look at the analysis of the claims in this link here. Judge Koh got the list trimmed down substantially and the trial started with one registered trade dress claim, limited unregistered trade dress claims, 4 design patents and 3 utility patents - by Apple. The 3 utility patents were the 'pinch to zoom', the 'bounceback to signify no more scrolling space' and the 'tapping to zoom' patents. These claims were to be examined against about 25 Samsung products each. And 5 counter patent claims by Samsung including the 2 FRAND patents regarding 3g technology. These 2 patents cover industry standard technologies so it should've been a given that Apple was using them. There were settlement talks which failed which could only mean that Apple and Samsung could not agree on settlement terms. Apparently Apple had asked Samsung for $30 per phone. If this is true, I think I can understand why Samsung refused to settle this and may have even come out better with the $1 billion in damages. 

A 9 member jury decided the verdict after being given a 100 page jury instruction document and a 20 page verdict form with about 700 questions and came back in less than 22 hours of deliberation! That is to say, 9 ordinary members of society unanimously decided a complicated and nuanced suit, which also happens to set precedence for this issue, in 22 hours. I frankly think a panel of well read IP scholars would've had trouble deciding and agreeing on all these issues in such a short period. That is, not to say that the jury was malicious, but it does seem quite likely that with a weekend ahead of them and with their mindset already favouring Apple after Samsung clearly infringed upon some of the patents at least, the jury went ahead and hurried through the process. And unsurprisingly, there is proof that the jury was not as thorough as it could've been.


In one instance, the jury said that Samsung did not infringe, but then assigned about $2million in damages for inducement. When there is no infringement, proving inducement to infringe seems a bit of a stretch. In another instance, they ruled no infringement at all but still had damages for a few hundred thousand dollars. It makes one wonder then, one what basis they handed out any of their damages. Judge Koh sent these inconsistencies back to the jury and the jury asked the judge what the inconsistencies were. These were then sorted out and Samsung had ~$2million removed to bring the total damages down to $1.049 billion.

There are some other aspects which I haven't quite understood about the verdict yet. Apple went into the case with an injunction against the Galaxy Tab for infringement of design patent, yet amongst the devices that the jury decided on, the iPad was the only clear loss for Apple with the jury stating there had been no infringement. 
More confusingly, with respect to some of the software patents, some devices were found to be not infringing. Given that Samsung's phones all run the same Touchwiz interface on Android 2.2 or 2.3, how is it that most Galaxy devices were found to infringe upon the 'bounceback' patent for instance, but not the Ace or the Intercept. I'm really curious as to what was different about the few devices they found non-infringing when all the others were found to be infringing. 

To be perfectly honest, it almost seems like the jury was randomly throwing in a few questions in Samsung's favour so as to not appear like they've gone all out in Apple's favour. 

Added to this: Samsung's 2 FRAND patents (patents which are required to be licensed on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory terms as they are necessary to comply with standard setting bodies) were being used by Apple. What's important here is that Samsung offered Apple these licenses at a 2.4% rate or at $14.40 / iPhone or iPad and Apple claimed that this was unreasonable. The infringement seems a given in this case and the question seems to be more surrounding FRAND terms. Instead the jury just found non-infringement in this case. Presumably, they were convinced by Apple's argument in court that Apple bought the parts from Intel, and Intel had valid licenses from Samsung and that patent exhaustion would apply in this case. Personally, I am confused why Apple negotiated (and disagreed with) licensing terms with Samsung if it did not need to at all. 

Statements from the jury:

A few statements from the jurors with added emphasis by me: 

Most tellingly, the statement from the jury foreman Velvin Hogan, that the jury had reached the decision without needing the instructions. 

In an interview after the trial, he also then said "We wanted to make sure the message we sent was not just a slap on the wrist," We wanted to make sure it was sufficiently high to be painful, but not unreasonable." 

Unfortunately, not just one but two of the rules that the jury didn't read (as mentioned above), specifically say that the damages were not to penalize but merely to compensate. 'Jury'-activism much?

After the trial, CNET spoke to a another juror
"It didn't dawn on us [that we agreed that Samsung had infringed] on the first day," Ilagan said. "We were debating heavily, especially about the patents on bounce-back and pinch-to-zoom. Apple said they owned patents, but we were debating about the prior art [about similar technology that Samsung said existed before the iPhone debuted]. [Velvin] Hogan was jury foreman. He had experience. He owned patents he took us through his experience. After that it was easier. After we debated that first patent -- what was prior art --because we had a hard time believing there was no prior art."
"In fact we skipped that one," Ilagan continued, "so we could go on faster. It was bogging us down."
He continued on to state that they were not impatient through the process though. 
It may be too late for Apple to start hoping that the jurors stop speaking out about their jury duty as these statements are probably already cause enough for Samsung to take up with the court. 

Conclusions and Implications:
As for this case, the only conclusion seems to be that this is far from concluded. There seem to be enough grounds for Samsung to appeal and in the meanwhile Apple is sure to go in for stronger claims as well. This is a battle that will probably go on to the Supreme Court. 
The big question is what the implications to innovation are and what the effect this will have on consumers - and I agree largely with what the team at Verge seems to think about this. The implications to Samsung beyond the money in damages will not be much. Apple does not have any injunctions against Samsung. It certainly is a possibility that Apple will now ask for these injunctions, but it is too early to tell which way that will go and if it'll matter at all. Most of these phones are being phased out and the new line have either worked around Apple's patents already or are not endangered by them.  The Android OS development will no doubt have a huge role to play in this but one can rest assured that Google is observing and making notes from all these developments. The software developments here have been proven against Samsung's Touchwiz interface and claiming them against HTC or Motorola or any other company would probably not be bolstered too much by this decision. I could be wrong however and I think Rajiv will be following up on with a post on the impact this will have on the Android ecosystem.
Given that Samsung already has such a large section of the smartphone market, this decision will certainly not throw them off completely, if at all. But they will be more wary of their competitors' patents. Microsoft with their new Windows phones will probably be very happy with this decision as this might help boost their products. 
However, given that patents are here, whether they like them or not, companies will be more likely to (a) be more wary of them and (b) cross-license and settle. Apple was able to wield such power this time because they had a huge advantage coming in strong with patents. This is not likely to happen again since eyes are always following patent filings nowadays. One can also hope that weak patents (such as 'rectangle with rounded edges') will be challenged before they can be used as offensive patents. Software workarounds will probably become the norm - so there will be plenty of duplicative work but given  the three factors which somehow combine here - (a) that companies will be more wary of patents and (b) at the same time want to increase their market share, while (c) software workarounds are relatively easy to do, I would guess that innovative activity is likely to increase. Unfortuntely, more immediately, all the litigation expenses that companies are all going through with these patent wars, will probably translate into higher costs for the consumer. 
I'm less sure what this means for Apple though. Apple has been very trigger happy in these patent wars so far and I'm really not sure what they're so worried about to be filing suits all over the world at the rate they are. Apple makes beautiful, easy to use products and frankly, Apple consumers generally already know what they're buying when they buy Apple products. 
But these court cases represent huge litigation costs for them and one that they are apparently willing to make. It does also seem to appear that their product improvements have not been as large in the past year or so and Steve Jobs' demise is probably a factor in this. Are they worried that they can't keep up with product development and hence are trying to stop their competitors? Because if this is the reason, they may have unknowingly triggered faster improvements from their competitors by being so over-zealous with their patent rights. But then again, Apple has given surprises to the market before - perhaps they can still continue to surprise. In any case, these patent wars certainly do represent a huge waste in resources and it is very very unfortunate that it seems to be leading to companies wasting resources duplicating efforts with workarounds rather than forging straight on. The only clear winners here seem to be the patent lawyers and it is certainly a good time to be one. 

For this post I collated data from several websites and news sources across the internet. However much of my information came from several pages within the very informative Groklaw and The Verge.