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Internet challenges conventional notions of privacy, ownership, freedom

Ajay Srivatsan

With ‘public hotspots’ everywhere, questions arise how ‘free’ the services are

— PHOTO: V. GANESAN

A Wi-Fi zone at a restaurant in Chennai.

CHENNAI: The Internet is still in its infancy but it has already made us question many conventional notions of privacy, ownership and freedom. New technologies such as Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) and WiMax, which transform Internet access into a community experience, only complicate the issues further.

At a time when ‘public hotspots,’ zones which provide free Wi-Fi access, are cropping up across the country, questions are being raised how ‘free’ the services really are and about the protocols employed to log in a ‘public’ network. India is not anywhere near the number of Wi-Fi clusters available in the U.S. and Singapore, but ‘free’ Wi-Fi has been provided in many airports, hotels and coffee shops for the past couple of years, and there are major expansion plans by companies like Bharti Airtel, which plans to add 1,000 hotspots across the country by year-end.

To access the Wi-Fi network at all Indian airports, one has to enter their mobile number in a landing page and the password is sent in an SMS to that number. Many frequent flyers like Brij Kothari, a visiting professor at IIM-Ahmedabad and social entrepreneur based in San Francisco, have serious issues with sharing their number just to quickly check their email inbox. “I have no idea what they do with my mobile number, and no assurance is provided that it will not be shared with others who might use it for advertising,” he said. At the Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul airports, one can just go online without the need for a mobile phone, and there is no time limit on free access. “The need for an Indian mobile number to access a service in an international terminal does not make sense,” says Dr. Kothari.

Prateek Pashine, chief operating officer of Tata Communications Internet Services Ltd. (TCISL), says the requirement of a mobile number for customer verification is mandated by Wi-Fi guidelines laid down by the Department of Telecommunications in the interest of “national security.” But he is not willing to divulge how long the numbers will stay in the authentication servers. Bharti Airtel has refused to comment.

TCISL provides Wi-Fi at the Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Cochin, Goa, Hyderabad and Pune airports. Free usage is restricted to pre-defined minutes, beyond which it is payable.

J. Shivkumar, chief technical officer, Wi5, a wireless broadband service provider, says operations in hotspots are monetised through advertising on the landing page or subsidised by means such as ‘anchor tenancy.’

Someone does pay for the ‘free’ service at airports, but commuters say there are occasions when one cannot connect to the network because of a weak signal, while the paid service at the terminal works just fine. Furthermore, the validation mechanisms to access ‘open’ networks show us the kind of society we live in — one of fear, suspicion and authentication protocols.

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