The Internet in Developing Nations: India

Developing nations are both really lucky and unlucky with the internet. While they are able to take advantage of international assistance in leapfrogging previous technologies, they have to struggle with basic issues like electrification and education.

India acts as a wonderful case study. 96% of villages in India are electrified (although only 67% of households actually have access to power) as of October, 2015. This number has, of course, grown in the past year, and has led to a 34.8% penetration of the internet in India, a 30% increase YTD. Millions of middle class Indians have access to the internet.

On July 1st, 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled Digital India – an initiative backed by major tech firms, both domestic and international, to bring India into the digital age, leapfrogging the analog technologies that Western nations were still transitioning out of straight into the internet age. This allowed PM Modi to tackle corruption and galvanize transparency. Good governance via good technologies.

One of the biggest and most innovative initiatives under the umbrella of Digital India was mygov.in. PM Modi uses this platform religiously to publicize government initiatives, post his bi-monthly radio addresses to the nation via SoundCloud, and request feedback and suggestions from every day citizens. The website hosts nationally recognized and valued referendums, though none with legal value, and has led to major reforms, including the recent banning of the ₹500 and ₹1000 notes, which was a suggestion from an average citizen. To increase transparency, the government also implemented attendance.gov.in, forcing 4.8 million public servants to biometrically identify when they arrived at work and when they left. This has had the effect of, at the very least, instilling fear in public servants, getting them to reduce absences.

Further digitization has been in pushing all government transactions online in an “Amazon-ification” of government purchases, including moving tenders and RFPs online. The entire system is moving towards transparency and clarity, with the PM advocating for a cashless society to tackle corruption even further.

The PM’s Office has also pushed the Aadhaar system, a giant online, biometric identification system for almost all Indians, that was first pushed by the previous government. This then leads to the big question of the century: is all of this digitization safe? With hundreds of millions of citizens’ information and biometric data online, a huge honey pot is just ripe for breaking into. So far, no large scale hack has been reported, but, with actors such as Pakistan and China in play, anything can happen. Ultimately, as always with software, the battle will be between efficiency and security.

Delete your account.

Upon being accepted into Harvard, I befriended almost fifty other pre-frosh via social media. These were people that I had never met before, but with whom I had found something in common. We would talk about our senior years, all the cool things we were looking forward to at Harvard, and how stressed we were about going to college and leaving our families. As we became closer, much of the conversation shifted towards jokes, personal conversations, political discussions (especially through the 2016 Primary cycle), and, of course, memes.

Again, these were people I had never met before. And yet, I was chatting with these people more often than  I was with my own friends.

These are people who I thought could be my closest friends, and yet, now that I’m actually here, I talk to none of them. Sure, if I see them I’ll say hi, but they’re nothing more than acquaintances.

The fact is that people are very different online and offline. Through social media, people want to always build a facade of happiness. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, people have “both private and public positions” on topics, where they only display what they want their friends to see on social media with everything from photoshopped, edited, and filtered photos or Snapchat Stories showing them.

This leads to a rift. People often try to Google or Facebook-search new people that they have met, attempting to garner as much information about their new acquaintance as they can. Heck, the whole point of Facebook is to see what your friends are up to all the time. This means that followers of user accounts can develop an impression of the user that is based only on what the user allows their followers to see, creating a fake persona. Many judgements can be made by looking through the list of “likes” that users have (sorry, Rachel), but these are not necessarily correct. It’s hard to be completely authentic online because people can’t see you for who you are. You self-select and upload everything yourself, removing any context from the situation.

Bad Things Happen in the World

Cyber crimes have been a rising issue that countries and organizations have been attempting to tackle for years, with an increased sense of urgency. There are four ways to deal with cyber leaks and cyber crimes:

Stop them before they happen

Cybersecurity, encryption, and strong practices are all extremely useful and potent. Larry Lessig, the Harvard professor famous (actually… no one really knew about him… ) for trying to run for President in 2016, points to the idea that “a fence can keep people out as much as a police officer can”. With legislation, smart coding architecture, social norms that shame people, and market practices bolstered by governments with taxes and subsidies, cyber crimes can be tackled.

Unfortunately, fences can be overrun (and so can walls between US and Mexico that Mexico won’t pay for) and police officers can be bypassed. No matter how many McAfee alerts you get, at some point, you’re gonna mess up. Maybe you didn’t back up your files well. Maybe you clicked on a phishing link. Maybe you use a PC instead of a Mac. Who knows. The question then is, how do you react?

Punish the attackers

If you can find the attackers, you can punish them. All of these punishments would depend on being able to attribute the crimes to the attackers. In many cases, applications have built in tools that allow you to do so. Otherwise, the internet’s infrastructure has built in mechanisms as well.

Punishment protocols break down into three categories:

Civilian vs Civilian

These sorts of crimes are treated similarly to regular crimes. If an American attacked and American, the rules and punishments are simple; the American government comes down on the American attacker.

If the attacker is foreign, however, the process is a little harder. If America has a treaty with the other nation, then the foreign government is obliged to assist America in extraditing or, at the very least, punishing the attacker. If America does not have such a treaty, as in Belarus or Russia, then all America can do is lean on the nation and hope that they do something. The FBI can work with the Belarusian national security agencies to catch the criminal or work with Interpol, but there’s no guarantee.

Nation vs Nation

This is basically war. Israel and the US sabotaging Irani nuclear refinement facilities is an attack. Pakistanis hacking into Indian Air Force jets is an attack. Russian hacks of DNC email servers is an attack. Whether either party treats it as an all out war is a separate issue, but that’s what it could easily lead to.

Nation vs Civilian

This is also basically an attack. A prime example of this would be North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures that cost the company $50 million. This is basically the same thing as North Koreans coming into America and bombing something (albeit, maybe with fewer casualties). It’s an attack on American citizens and thus is an act of war.

Deal with it

This is the resilience approach. It’s possible that you can fight through the attack and then leave it alone. For example, since websites across the US went dark as a result of a DDOS attack on a DNS provider, there has been little retaliation. It’s not worth it. The DNS provider came back up, websites are running fine, and security protocols have been improved, but that’s about it. Sometimes, you just have to move on.

Resignation

Just give up. Give in. If they’re asking for money, pay it. Otherwise, give up and move on. Sorry.

 

You own the internet (But, not really)

A few weeks ago, the United States handed over control of the Domain Name System (DNS) to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), meaning that the US Department of Commerce no longer controls the allocation of domain names for websites. This means America doesn’t own the internet anymore. Right?

Well, no matter what Sen. Ted Cruz says, that’s just false. While Sen. Cruz and Attorney Generals from Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas were concerned about autocratic regimes dictating terms on the internet, they failed to realize that no one governs the internet. No one can truly ever control it. The internet feels sort of like a wayward child. Sure, the US government developed it in conjunction with dozens of scientists, but they have lost the right to actually control it, according to Barlow.

Unfortunately, control over the internet is very real. Censorship is rampant around the world. In India and Turkey, social media are regularly taken down and monitored to reduce rallying cries for protests and anti-government sentiment. “Morphed” (or Photoshopped) pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi often land normal kids in jail.

I had the fortunate experience to attend the WikiConference USA in 2015, held in Washington, DC. There, I attended a talk on Wikipedia censorship in Russia and China, where they decried the lack of freedom to criticize the governments or post about potentially “obscene” content. Wikipedia is run only by volunteers and the Wikimedia Foundation, who work together to advocate for open information and the open internet, but even they recognize that, in some cases, self-censorship can help. In Russia, articles about Marijuana no longer discuss how to smoke/consume it after those articles had been banned. While this may not be ideal, it allows for a solid compromise.

On the flip side, when the album cover for Virgin Killer, by Scorpions, was found to publicly depict child pornography, the Internet Watch Foundation blacklisted any references to the album in the United Kingdom. This accidentally barred editing access to Wikipedia across the country. The question remains, however, do governments have a right to bar “obscene” content in the same way they do on TV and Radio?

I would say that, yes, they do; however, they, in practice, can’t. The internet is a truly global system. TV and Radio are all local entities. It’s expensive and capital-intensive to set up a radio station or a TV channel. Reaching millions of people is near-impossible without a lot of investment. These barriers to entry make TV and Radio easy to regulate. On the internet, on the other hand, anyone and everyone can post whatever they want from wherever they want for whomever the want (read: everyone). This means that even if the government were to shut down websites and sources of information, others could easily pop-up. Workarounds, such as proxies, are prevalent. Without literally uprooting infrastructure, like North Korea, it’s impossible to actually bar access to content on the internet.

So, while no one may own the internet, governments can and do ban access to content. They have the right to regulate what their own citizens see and consume, but ultimately are unable to sustain/enforce those bans.

Civic Technology

Today in our seminar, we had the opportunity to speak with David Eaves, a government tech advocate and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. He discussed the potentials, fears, and issues of technology in government.

As Eaves puts it, Information Technology has shifted from a “does your computer work?” strategy to a “how can we get it to work for you” thought-process. We’re shifting from IT to Digital, where technology has become its own sector, rather than under the CFO who’d view it as naught but a cost. In this way, we can focus more on governance and making products better for the user.

Eaves stressed how important it is for the user experience to be valued first and foremost: the customer is always right. Before, governments purchased softwares solely based on what is the cheapest one. Now, the customer matters. Products are/should be designed for users. We need to ask the question, “how can I make this work for a citizen of my population”. Eaves mentioned the CalFresh case study where they were able to turn a 100+ questionnaire into a 9 question one, slashing the time it took to take from 45 minutes. I attended an event earlier in the year with Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the CTO of the City of Boston, and the head of the website team, who discussed how each portion of the website was scrapped and redesigned for better user experiences based on user-testing, field-testing, and surveys. They’ve also made immense amounts of data open to the public for access and for information.

Based on case studies around the world, governments have been shifting the Request for Procurement (RFP) process to a more agile framework, especially in smaller localities. This means breaking up RFPs into several smaller modules and moving forward with those with several contractors, and then hiring a single consultant who packages all of those into one big wrapper. Eaves says that this increases competition and efficiency. I’ve noticed that this same process is used in general construction projects around the world. While building a metro rail system, one contractor may work on pillars, another on track laying, another on signaling, and yet another on the actual rakes; however, in technology, I fear that this system may not be smart. Every module may be constructed in dramatically different ways, with varying languages and implementations. If such standards are agreed to before development, of course, these issues could be ironed over.

There is also a huge concern over privacy and security. If the government makes data more available or starts collecting more data (as they already have) to simplify processes, what if someone hacks into the “honey pot” and gains all the information? Or, is it fair for the government to have all this information about me? I could contend, yes, to a certain degree. The fact is that if someone really wanted your information, they would get it from other means. And, if you wanted to hide all of your personal information, you could do some with other means. The average citizen will rarely be impacted by government surveillance so long as they don’t commit a crime. So long as security measures are actively taken, the privacy and security issues don’t bother me too much.

All in all, government has always been an extremely inefficient engine. And, if any steps can be taken to simplify processes and make the system better, I’m all for them.

Tech in Politics

Over the past summer, I volunteered with Congresswoman Barbara Comstock’s (R-VA-10) reelection campaign, going to festivals, phone-banking, and going door-to-door. Republicans have a history of having strong, grassroots, ground-games, in a way that Democrats, excluding Presidential races since Obama in 2008, have failed to emulate. Republicans have data going back decades about voting records and tendencies. We were armed with mobile apps when we went door to door that told us what path to take, which houses to go to, which houses had Democrats and which have Republicans, and who could be convinced to jump the aisle. These statistics, in my experienced, proved highly valuable and accurate. While walking around neighborhoods, or calling homes, I would often be amazed by how precise the calculations and predictions were. We were able to tailor our pitches based on what we gleaned from the application, and we inputted what we learned from the potential voter back into the application, training the system for future users.

Elections have become increasingly data driven, targeting potential voters from the get-go, and not wasting time with party loyalists. Political advertisements have taken information from users’ tendencies and preferences to target their views, in the same way that Wal-Mart or Target (ha pun intended) would single out users’ traits. For example, as a college student, I’ve seen motley Bernie Sanders ads about college debt; however, I have yet to see an ad about social security.

Further, social media has begun to play an unprecedented role in elections. Republican Nominee for the President of the United States Donald Trump (wow, it’s honestly worse thinking of him with that formal title) can command the news cycle for weeks with a single Tweet. And, that’s his entire strategy: use buzzwords and crazy ideas to remain the headline. This also allows politicians to interact with the youth, as both Trump and Secretary Clinton are highly active on all forms of social media, ranging from Instagram to Facebook to Snapchat. In this way, they can access voters in their more personal fields, while they’re socializing and relaxing, rather than while they’re actively seeking news and information.

This, however, furthers social media echo chambers. The Wall Street Journal is able to compare Liberal and Conservative viewpoints on certain news issues based on the types of posts potential voters see on their Facebook News Feeds. Potential voters Tweet, Share, and Post media that they believe in, even they will do nothing to change your friends’ minds. Ultimately, you only see the posts for pages that Facebook and Twitter believe you will like or do like; thus, you will only see one side of the story. Either you’ll see NowThis videos, or you’ll see Breitbart report videos. There’s very little in between, albeit most of the nation is moderate, leading to increased partisanship and polarity.

The Singularity

What happens when Artificial Intelligence becomes as smart as us? Avengers 2: Age of Ultron wants us to believe that, for the sake of protecting humanity, the robots will try to destroy humanity.

That makes sense.

As computers grow more and more advanced, we keep reaching points that we weren’t supposed to. Computers were not supposed to be able to do anything they weren’t explicitly told to do. Until they did. Computers were not supposed to be able to beat us at chess. Until they did. Computers were not supposed to be able to play and win at Go. Until they did.

Computers, however, have a vastly different style of learning, aptly named, machine learning. Humans learn in two ways: 1. Through experiences that allow humans to form connections and memories; 2. By intuitively connecting multiple different experiences in a subconscious way. Machines need to be more explicit. They learn by taking hundreds, if not billions, of input cases and parsing them to form judgements on past inputs and expected cases. Machines make educated guesses, based on previous decisions that users accepted, and calculate a probability for each potential output based on how potentially useful it is. The machine then outputs the best possible answer.

In my sophomore year, I took a class on Artificial Intelligence where we had to code a machine learning tic-tac-toe solver. The process was simple: create a structure that would parse through all the submitted test cases, calculate the frequencies/probabilities of winning for each case,  and, while actually playing the game, run through all the possible moves and judge which one would likely lead to a victory. In this simple way, I was able to develop a tic-tac-toe AI that I could never beat (which, in all fairness, isn’t saying much because I’m terrible at tic-tac-toe).

We don’t really need to replicate human intelligence. Its long as we’re reaching this end goal of being able to solve problems, the process doesn’t matter. The actual biochemical processes of the human mind are irrelevant.

This also allows us to eschew fearing the Singularity. If the machines aren’t smart in the same way as humans, they will never reach the same type of self-awareness as humans and we can control their thoughts. So long as we limit the bounds of the artificial intelligence by focusing on the problems we want these machines to solve rather than getting them to solve them with “human” methods, we should be able to end up avoiding “self-awareness”.

We don’t need to fear technology so long as we continue to have control.

Everything is Connected

Many East Asian religions and philosophies were developed under the idea that everything is connected to a larger spirit; everything is interconnected and related. The Japanese wrapped up the idea under Shintoism, while the Hindus called it Brahman. Today, we call this idea the Internet of Things: everything is connected to the internet. Under the IoT system, thermostats will communicate with cameras, which will communicate with phones, which will communicate with light bulbs, which will communicate with doorbells.

Source: pixabay.com
Source: pixabay.com

The idea is that by placing sensors around your world, you can develop an ecosystem that works around you, simplifying your life and giving you more time to do things that matter to you. Products like Nest Thermostats are designed to track your habits and your preferences to be able to do things for you. For example, a Nest Theromostat specifically tracks whether you are in or out of the house and regulates the temperature based on that, saving you energy costs. It also tracks the local weather and adjusts the temperature accordingly. And, as it’s connected to the internet, it can be monitored via mobile devices.

With Apple’s HomeKit APIs, your home can be designed to be controlled completely with your iPhone. Philips Hue lightbulbs, Honeywell Lyric thermostats, and Ring doorbells all link to your iPhone and can be controlled by iOS 10’s new Home app; there’s a one-stop-shop for controlling your entire house. While this makes your life easy, the biggest follow up concerns are security and privacy.

No system is infallible. Even the American power grid system is susceptible to cyber-terror attacks. What if someone hacks into your email? They now have access to, well, everything. And, if you’re still stuck on Yahoo, then you’ve potentially already been hacked. In fact, tools for detecting and hacking IoT devices have been flooding underground, dark web forums.

So, the question is, is the convenience worth it? Are we okay with machines making decisions for us and leaving us to do other tasks? Is the trade-off something that we can handle? I guess, this a personal question that every individual considering investing in products will have to answer on their own.

Anyone Can Sell Anything… to Anyone

The internet was never supposed to be used for a commercial purpose; at one point, it was illegal to even send advertising emails. In fact, as Professor Waldo mentioned in class, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel were among the first to send “spam” emails in 1994. Before this period of time, a certain set of rules were followed on the internet. There was a certain etiquette, or a “netiquette”, if you will, of being polite and avoiding spam. As we now know, the internet is inundated with trolls and advertisements, and the Canter and Siegel email is said to have been the trigger.

Nevertheless, the commercialization and monetization of the internet is not a bad thing. Sure, spam email sucks, but the internet has become the world’s largest and most accessible marketplace, selling everything that you could possibly imagine. Companies like Amazon and EBay have shut down retail giants who seemed intractable in their spaces, such as Borders and even Sears. Consumers have begun to use these stores as showrooms to check out products and then order them from online. In the end, the Consumers win because they have more choice, they have more flexibility, and they have more efficiency. And, best of all, they can do all this while sitting on their bed in their pajamas.

This has sort of led to a philosophy of instant gratification among younger people with myself included, unfortunately. We want stuff done now. Amazon Prime’s two day shipping has spoiled us. Instant communication and a vast swath of immediately available information at our finger-tips has led us to believe that problems can be solved instantaneously. But, alas, this is a bigger issue than can be tackled by a feeble blog post.

Meanwhile, it’s become easier for smaller companies/producers to access a larger base of consumers under the Long Tail Effect. This is probably the coolest part of economics on the internet. Anyone can sell anything… to anyone. Websites like Etsy, Kickstarter, and EBay expose the entire world to products and merchants that they could have never heard of before. Local and regional marketplaces have expanded into nationwide and worldwide marketplaces. Companies like the Dollar Shave Club can go viral and can reach millions of consumers without investing heavily in advertising; the word-of-mouth chain has become infinitely more accessible. Most of these online-only producers sell one or two products.

Pebble is a perfect example of a product taking off from Kickstarter and growing into a full-scale company. It began as a small project that Eric Migicovsky took through the Y-Combinator project to turn into a larger company. Eventually, due to failing to gather investors after a rebranding, Pebble moved to crowd-funding via Kickstarter and blew up into the multi-million dollar company it is today with several products.

The internet has, simply, become the coolest place to buy and sell products.

Networking Like Networking

Networking with people seems very similar to networking with, uh, networks. Imagine a general pool of people like you or me who are seeking jobs. These people don’t really know what they’re doing, but they’re capable of meeting people at different events. This pool is like the basic internet/ARPAnet. Now, there are two ways that this pool can be accessed: 1. Either someone from a hiring company can reach out to someone from the job pool or 2. Someone from the applicant pool can reach out to the network that they are seeking to access.

The first case is like a local network reaching out to the overall internet system. While someone from the company is connecting to interact with job applicants in the networking for a job situation, the local network is sending information to the overall network in the computer networking situation. The second case, on the other hand, is the exact opposite, with a job seeker going through the overall internet to connect with the other company, just like how a host/network connects to another network.

But, along the way, both have to go through a recruiter or at least some employee at the company who has access to both the applicant and the company. This is similar to a gateway, which links a network to the overall internet. The gateway acts as a, well, gateway for the network to the internet!

Now, if only this analogizing could get me a real job…

On another note, I was really intrigued by the conversation we had in our seminar about domains and IP addresses. Having built and deployed several websites myself, I was surprised by the complexities and all the different moving parts involved on the back-end. When you’re developing and publishing a website, you only really see what you yourself have constructed, with the rest of the network-side code hidden by your web-host (other than the server-side code that you’ve written yourself).

I’m also very much looking forward to future discussions about economics and privacy!