Carl Malamud, a 64-year old self-described Gandhian, had made it his life’s mission to make all information accessible to the public, everywhere.
Over the last two years, the Bureau of Indian Standards has made available online, for free, about 14,000 of its almost 21,000 norms prescribing the minimum technical specifications that goods, processes, systems and services in India must meet.
Every human-made good or service – from furniture and soap to entering a septic tank to clean it – must be performed according the specifications laid down by the bureau. Failing to comply with these standards leads to these goods or services being deemed deficient.
Since these standards provide state-mandated quality checks for almost all objects of daily use, this knowledge is of immense public value. Despite this, till last year, all of this information was essentially behind a paywall. Anyone who needed to refer to them – working professionals, students and entrepreneurs – had to buy them, often for thousands of rupees.
It is unclear why the standards were being sold since less than 2% of the bureau’s revenue is estimated to come from these sales.
Making these standards accessible for free is “a significant victory because we often forget that standards are indeed the invisible laws that underlie the visible ones”, said academic and lawyer Lawrence Liang.
Many safety laws, for instance “are actualised through standards such as building code regulations, and unless these are freely available, you run the risk of undermining constitutional and statutory commitments”, he said.
The bureau’s hand seems to have been forced in large part by the efforts of American technologist, author and publican domain activist Carl Malamud, who spent $10,513 (Rs 6.15 lakh at the time) to buy over 18,000 Indian Standards between Feburary 2012 and May 2013 and published them online.
Public domain activism maverick
Malamud, who is in his mid-60s, has made it his life’s mission to make information available to the public.
To that end, he has, over the last 30 years, worked extensively and on a variety of projects relating to universal access to all knowledge not just in the United States, but also in Europe and India.
Malamud started off his career in the 1980s as a computer expert, writing columns and books about computers and databases, even though he never had a formal education in computer science. He had dropped out of a PhD programme in antitrust economics.
In the early 1990s, he developed the first internet radio station (he half-jokingly calls himself “the father of the podcast”) and in 1996 is credited to have created the first online exhibition, called the Internet World Exposition.
The organisation he founded, Public.Resource.org, has since the early 1990s digitised and shared large numbers of court records, government-produced videos and laws in the United States.
Malamud was responsible for placing the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system (EDGAR database) and the US Patent database on the internet for the first time. He contributed his software and computers to the US Securities and Exchange Commission to enable it to take over the service. He also put all the opinions of the US Court of Appeals on the internet for the first time.
“My work on open and non-proprietary standards led to protocols such as email, the World Wide Web, telephony over the Internet, and many other innovations that make up our modern Internet,” Malamud said.
Opening up knowledge in India
Malamud’s Indian journey started in the early 1990s, when he came to Srinagar to finish writing his first book on databases. He returned twice while writing a travelogue documenting internet innovations across the world. Later that decade, he visited Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama, who had written the foreword to one his books.
However, Malamud’s engagement with India was firmed up only in 2014, when Aneesh Chopra, the Chief Technology Officer of the US at the time, introduced him to telecom engineer and entrepreneur Sam Pitroda. Pitroda had served as an adviser to Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.
Malamud told Pitroda about his work in the US and that he wanted to make government documents and standards publicly available in India too. Pitroda invited him to travel with him across India for a week. The trip ended at a workshop on non-violence at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad.
Since then, Malamud has created treasure troves of digitised Indian books. These include the Public Library of India, a collection of over 42,000 Indian books in over 100 languages mirrored from the internet, the Indian Academy of Sciences and other science resources and the Hind Swaraj collection, which contains literature by and about India’s founding fathers, including Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose, S Radhakrishnan and BR Ambedkar.
He has also co-created an archive of the Official Gazettes of India. These gazettes contain the latest laws, executive orders, rules and notifications issued by the Centre and the states.
Till now, Malamud has digitised 2,17,38,932 Indian records that make up around 341 terabytes, or TB, of data. (One TB of storage could contain digital versions of 1,000 copies of the 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica.)
“Going by the number of people who rely on the collection of Indian material put together by Carl on archive.org, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that thousands of students and researchers in India probably thank this anonymous friend on a daily basis,” said Liang.
Malamud has come to increasingly spend significant time on his projects in India. He estimated that in 2019, he spent 150 days in India. He has developed an extensive network of academics, bureaucrats, politicians and public policy experts in the country and regularly holds lectures with students and civil society groups on viewing knowledge as a public good.
What drew him to India? According to Malamud, he was fascinated by India’s freedom struggle and the ideas of Gandhi, especially satyagraha and confronting authority. He has studied both Gandhi and Ambedkar’s works and liberally quotes both.
When the Karnataka government invited him to be a keynote speaker at a Gandhi Jayanti event last month, he delivered a speech on Gandhian values.
Bureau of Indian Standards
Malamud believes that his greatest victory in India has been the publication by the Bureau of Indian Standards of about 70% of its standards. He views it as the culmination of an advocacy effort that was almost a decade long.
When he found out about all Indian standards being paywalled by the Bureau of Indian Standards, the solution was a no-brainer for him. “I told Pitroda that I would put all the standards online,” he told Scroll.