Hacker's hackles rise over govt. fees
Naresh Fernandes June 11, Bombay

There is fear and loathing in cyberspace. Over the past few weeks, angry curses have blipped alongside cursors on computer screens around the country as hackers have debated the implications of the "TechnoHorror" Department of Telecommunications document that could kill the increasingly popular hobby of "BBSing."

Bulletin Board Services are elevtronic communities that can be joined by anyone with a computer and a modem, a device that allows computer signals to travel along the telephone lines. Thus equipped, users can begin their journey along the global information superhighway.

The approximately 400 BBSers in the city, for example, are able to copy some of the thousands of programmes available in public domain archives, play long distance games of chess with each other or consult a specialists in Silicon Valley or even Harare about knotty hardware problems.

There is also a more serious side to BBSing. The 40-odd non governmental organisations that form NGONet used thier BBS to co-ordinate the relief efforts that followed last October's earthquake in Latur.

And the other networkers regularly log into and participate in transcontinental discussions on any of about 3,000 subjects("areas in computerspeak), ranging from astronomy to zoology.

But the area that has been most active on Indian networks over the last month is the "D,O,T,Crisis Forum". This discussion file has been bombarded with dozens of messages from irate BBSers (some from the U.S. and Europe), decrying - often in the colourful slang that hackers are given to using - the seeming arbitariness of the Rs 15 lakhs license fee announsed in the Department of Telecommunication's "Guideliness For Value-Added Services."

The guidelines also relate to electronic mail, voice mail, morning alarm services and other services that use telephone lines and other telecommunications infrastructure.

Last night, "D,O,T, Crisis Forum" was running at more than 90 pages of text; one Bangalore hacker logged in to note that the guidelines run contrary to Rabindranath Tagore's vision of free India: the poem "Where The Mind is Without Fear" insists that Independent India would be a place "where knowledge is free"; a New Delhi networker took objection to the constant use of "the sexist male pronouns" throughout the D.O.T. document; BBSers from the US, Canada and Italy added grist to the mill by describing governmental interference, mainly by the police in operations in their respective countries.

The Forum also contains relevant portions of the guidelines and of telecom policy tabled in parliament last month.

Computer hobbyists contend that the license fee of Rs 1,200 per user, subject to a minimium of Rs 15 lakhs, is totally unrealistic and will force the Indian networks offline. Though there are estimated 60,000 BBSs worldwide, no other government has thought of levying a tax on the service.

Hackers assert that the D.O.T. has not realised that six of India's ten BBSs do not charge their users at all. And those that do "charge only enough to cover their own costs, typically an amount of Rs 30 to Rs 100 per hour and sometimes a contribution towards equipment costs", emphasisers Atul Chitnis who runs a network called CiX in Bangalore.

Complains Suchit Nanda, who runs the Live Wire!BBS in Bombay, "My assets are not worth more than Rs two lakhs. Our rates would be exorbitant if we pass on this cost to our 300 users." Nanda currently charges his users an annual fee of Rs 1,500.

Adds Sandeep Shah who went on-line in Ahmedabad six month ago and now has 60 users, "If I have to pay this kind of money I'll simply have to fold up."

Opinion on "D.O.T. Crisis Forum" is clear that the telecommunications department already generates revenue BBSs because networkers use phonelines to transmit their computer messages and because they pay a license fee for their modems.

BBSers have started to send a steady stream of protest letters to the D.O.T. chairman, N.Vittal, at his E-mail address, a tactic that was suggested on the Forum.

But could all this thunder indicate a storm in a teacup? After all, the Telecom policy announced in the Parliament on May 20 does not make a specific reference to BBSs. No, say the sysops (or "systems operators"). They insist that their outfits are included in the catchall and ill-defined category of "data providers" and will still be considered eligible for the levy.

Also ambiguous is the fate of the magazines and newspapers that are on-line and available to subscribers, not as a physical product, but as an image on a computer screen. Besides being environmentally friendly, online publications can be instantly updated. They can be customised (readers only part for the sections in which they are specially interested) and allow for instantaneous retreival of related material published months or years before.

PC Quest, a computer industry journal that is already on-line in New Delhi, critised the guidelines last month in a pungent editorial. "It is extreme shortsightedness to overtax information services in a developing country trying to jump a ten year gap with the West," the magazine declared.

Anil Grag, the vice-president of Business India magazine available on computer screens and soon plans to match this with a digital newspaper, shares the sentiment. "The policy may have a long-term detrimental effect," he maintains "It is preventive innovating ideas from taking shape."