Free access is the only way

Rajaram S Sharma

Today, there is almost nothing that a computer cannot do. What began as a glorified calculator has morphed into a beautiful piece of technology that is bridled, perhaps only by our lack of imagination. Computers today truly deserve to be rechristened as Information and Communication Technologies.

The success of ICT may have helped in the growth of some individuals but the fruits have not been forthcoming to everyone. Conventional barriers to penetration – cost of the devices, absence of internet bandwidths – have denied access to many people. This article will try and argue ways in which we can desire equitable access and work towards enabling it.

The technology on its own – and by this we mean devices, connectivity and the knowhow to use it – is unlikely to be restrictive. It is in the applications of these technologies that hindrances may emerge.

Language is one of the major barriers. The print and now the electronic world have seen runaway successes due to the proliferation of the English language. The accommodative nature of the language has made it possible to cater to every pursuit of knowledge and creative expression. The fact that major technological developments have emerged in the western world has allowed English to become the defacto language of the web and ICT. At the same time English has not proliferated as much among the masses. Leaving out a fraction of people, English is unlikely to be even familiar. The fact that much of the content and resources of ICT are in English, automatically makes it inaccessible to the larger population.

rajaram-1 The second barrier is the licenses that govern repurposing of creative works. Books upfront declare their copyright. Right behind the inner cover is a declaration which begins, “No part of this book can be reproduced…”. Most websites also make a similar declaration. This message, however, is hidden in the footer. Essentially they reserve the right to translate or adapt, as and when the authors or owners are inclined to do so. The dogooders among us who wish to translate and adapt are legally restricted.

Despite the web growing into a universal freeway, socio-cultural and socio-legal hurdles exist and these will have to be addressed, before we begin to realize the potential of ICT. The solution for the liberation of content and resources cannot lie in software piracy or plagiarism. Nor can we wish away the grounds on which copyright laws have come to be established. We have to think of alternate ways of liberating the resources and making them accessible.

Let us look at three separate uses of ICT. The most popular application is messaging. Sharing short messages, photographs, even videos have taken on obsessive proportions. A number of applications – whatsapp, facebook, twitter, telegram, signal – each of us has our own favourites, our own groups and our own reasons for staring at the screen, waiting for the next stream of gossip or trivia. The second popular use is browsing. With Google becoming the defacto window to the web, all one has to do is type in the key word, hit search, and the site you are looking for is just a click away. The third, is the use of software applications to actually create information.

Each of these uses has addressed access differently. And it will be useful to understand them. Let us take messaging. Anyone can install the messaging apps, register and ride the cyber pathways. In that sense, they have no barriers. Of course, availability of a device which supports the application and a data connection with sufficient speeds is assumed. The messaging applications are free. Companies which offer these applications are multi-billion dollar affairs, spread all over the globe. So, who pays for it? They have hit upon the trick of sneaking advertisements into your communication. But given the billions of messages zipping across cyberspace all the time, even a miniscule attention, can translate into large returns, making it worthwhile to advertise on such platforms. Note that minus all our messages, the apps are mere empty vehicles. It is our messages that earn money. Every word we type in, every picture we upload is analyzed for its potential to support advertising. The volumes of traffic generated satisfy everyone – the bandwidth provider, the app provider, the ad provider. Why should it not remain free? So far as this technique delivers, the messaging applications will remain accessible to all.

The second use is browsing. In an educational context, the major use of browsing lies in information being repurposible. We like to retrieve a chunk of text, some useful numbers, a picture, or a graph, paste it into our assignment, paper or blog, making it our own. And therein lies the issue. Unlike the messaging applications, content on websites is not free. The content on the messaging applications was yours and you wanted to share it with others. The call to give it away freely was also yours. There are millions of websites which follow a similar principle. They wish to inform, or share a passion, or proclaim an opinion or two. Dissemination of content is the goal. But there are millions of other websites which are not free. Not that these sites are not visible or content cannot be copied. The sites are protected by law, meaning that unauthorized repurposing of content from these sites can be legally challenged; and the person doing so held guilty of stealing. These rights go under a broad category called copyright. They are intended to protect the rights of individuals to make economic or other gains from their creative works. There are a third class of websites, which explicitly encourage users to take away content and resources. We will get back to considering the implications of these a while later. Let us look at the impact of the copyrighted websites on equitable access.

Websites which prefer to copyright their offerings treat electronic publishing analogous to print publishing. Books are not printed in unlimited numbers. They can become scarce too. But these limitations have been overcome in different ways. Books can be carried around, they are affordable and they can be borrowed from a friend or a library. Enterprising publishers have also found cheaper means of printing and dissemination, sharing earnings with the original publishers. More expensive the books, lesser the reach. Websites can overcome these issues. One copy of the content is simultaneously available to all. The question of making copies does not arise at all. And most websites, even while they are copyrighted, do not restrict access. So where does the issue of denial of access lie?

One, the website is published in a language which can be inaccessible. English language is popular, but certainly not universal. So how do we make the information available in other languages? The interested reader, who feels the need to translate and hence make it available to a larger group of people will find himself/herself restricted. The authors or owners of the website may not consider it worth their effort to invest in translation into other languages. The issue is one of common social good and how that can be promoted. People who wish to invest their efforts in common social good are not necessarily experts in particular domains. So we need experts to create the original information and others to serve as adapters and translators.

Every teacher takes recourse to original texts or sources of information to construct her lessons. One of the common uses of ICT in the classroom has been to support lessons with audio-visual content. Teachers also adapt content. They collect, for instance, pieces of content from different sources, and integrate them into their lessons. They also attempt simplifying the content to suit the needs of their students. Copyrighted websites restrict all such uses. One legally valid and technologically feasible way around this issue is to use hyperlinks. This ensures that the content is always sourced from the original source. Such a technique requires connectivity. Adaptation, however, will still not be permissible.

rajaram-2 Copyrights come in the way of dissemination across geographical, cultural and socio-economic barriers. This leaves a large number of people, particularly young students, out of reach. What then can be the solution? Is it necessary for every individual to become conversant with English, become capable of buying personal copies of content, become capable of comprehending the original sources of information in order to access knowledge? The systems of copyright and commercial access have served prosperous and smaller communities well. These communities also have been able to access services like libraries to reach out to those left out. This however is not the case in a developing community like India. The hunger for education reaches across socio-economic barriers. In fact, education may be the only way of liberation across the socio-economic barrier. Providing access becomes even more significant.

The legal paradigm used by websites which allow free repurposing of content is an alternative. Let us look at a representative group of licenses called the Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org). Enabling universal access is at the heart of this alternate paradigm. These licenses are based on a moral principle that creative processes are a result of nurturing such capabilities in individuals by the community and are usually accumulations of various creative processes preceding them. All discoveries or creations are thus a property of the larger human community. Giving the right to others to reuse, remix or repurpose the creative process or product unleashes the creative energy of the entire community and can only lead to improvements, rarely possible for the individual.

Available in a small range of variants, the most liberal Creative Commons licenses – cc by, expects a mere acknowledgement of the original author of the creative work. A relatively less liberal license – cc by-sa, where ‘sa’ stands for share alike, expects the adaptation of the creative work also to be similarly licensed. Even more restrictive variants invoke nc (non-commercial) and nd (non-derivative) clauses.

The spirit of these licenses is to enable larger communities to participate in the dissemination of information and knowledge, particularly across socio-economic and linguistic barriers. Proofs of success of such ideas are in plenty, the flag bearer being Wikipedia. Not only is Wikipedia (http://wikipedia.org) a rapidly growing repository of knowledge, but its robust editorial processes are a model of how openly editable documents – Wikipedia allows anyone to modify the content of any of its resources – can continue to ensure reliability of information. The range of languages in which Wikipedia is deployed and the large number of contributors to both original content in different languages and translations is a further testimony.

The concept of open educational resources (OER), content resources being released with an appropriate open license to enable adaptations and reuse, is rapidly growing into a movement, particularly in educational institutions. This augurs well for efforts at overcoming obstacles to universal access.

The third use of ICT that we listed earlier was the use of software applications. Similar to the licenses associated with creative works and content resources, software applications can also carry restrictive copyright licenses. A typical license associated with software is the End User License Agreement (EULA). Anyone who has installed a copyrighted software application on a computer would have been prompted to click on a button with the words ‘I Agree’. What you agreed to was the EULA which, allows you to make only one installation of the software and to accept the application with all its bugs and warts. You cannot share a copy of the software with anyone else. Each new instance will have to be bought. In general, affordability comes in the way of universal access.

A reaction to this paradigm has been to make available software applications under an alternative license, which permits its free access and dissemination. Known generically as Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), they enable software to be generally available free of cost. Again, a large number of software users now have a guilt free access to newer software. They do not have to resort to software piracy. The entire source code and documentation is made available for other developers to improve. The move has resulted in renewed interest in software developments, large communities of people have begun contributing their efforts in improving the code as well as expanding the user community. Many of these software have also been translated into various languages. Together, FOSS has established that a viable alternate license can work, and work well to address the core issue of universal access.

As we argued at the beginning, the promise of ICT can only be realized if everyone can participate and benefit from it. It will of course require people who are willing to invest their time, talent and effort for a common social good. But more importantly, a legal framework which enables free and unhindered access can greatly expand the reach.

The author is Joint Director of the Central Institute of Educational Technology, NCERT. He champions appropriate uses of Educational Technology, the Free and Open Source Software and Open Educational Resources. He can be reached at [email protected].

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