Amit's Blog

Recaptured: Photography, Travel, Design, Cinema, Business

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Goa & Rains: September 2015

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Sinquerim from Aguada. Shot in Goa, August 2015.

Wallpapers

ads on MTNL broadband

Dear MTNL. Stop taking sips from my broadband coffee!

It’s a fine Sunday morning, and you go to a cafe with your friends, and order a nice cup of large cappuccino.

While you’re chatting with your friends, you notice out of the corner of your eye, the waiter bringing your cup of coffee. You feel relieved, and excited for your kick of caffeine. Just then, you see the waiter lift the cup to his lips and take a sip from your cup.

How do you feel?

Apart from the initial feelings of disgust, you calculate your losses. You’ve paid for a certain volume of coffee & foam, and the waiter is taking away part of it, without either paying for it himself or compensating you (since technically now you’re the owner of that cup of coffee). And all this without your permission!

Thejesh GN had written about how Airtel was injecting an iframe in the pages served on its 3G connection, though Airtel defend it saying that it’s to track our usage to help us better. How is monitoring which pages I go to going to help me better, and how the telecom company providing me the connection can’t track the amount of bandwidth I consume without injecting iframes into the source of pages I visit is beyond my understanding.

We could still say this is expected of a private company. They are, after all, after only one thing, profits. But if a PSU starts one-upping them, it’s worrying.

Not only has MTNL been injecting code into the source of pages we view on their broadband connection, they have been showing ads as well. Large ones. Sometimes larger ones.

Here’s a sample:
ads on MTNL broadband

It raises quite a few concerns in my mind, and here they are.

  1. Permission: MTNL is a service provider. And we pay them for the service. We expect a certain amount of data transfer at certain speeds, and nowhere while signing up were we informed or our permission sought that they will serve ads on the connection.
  2. Money: MTNL charges us the amount for the specific amount of bytes transferred per month, and if we exceed that limit, our connection is downgraded, which is equivalent to Fairfax being chained to a snail. We as consumers keep monitoring our usage and reducing our superfluous consumption of bytes (stop reloading that often, watch lesser cat videos, download 720p versions of videos instead of 1080p and so on). And now we realise that a certain amount of our bandwidth will be consumed no matter what, because MTNL wants to run ads on the pages we see.
  3. As a producer of content/platforms: I run a business where we create web properties. Our clients are people who produce content or provide a service on these properties. In addition, I run this blog, and my firm has a website. It’s highly likely that when normal users (which includes me) using MTNL’s broadband connection accesses these properties, they would see these ugly ads on the pages. None of us agreed with MTNL to let them serve ads off our platforms and on our content. Some of us run ads on these properties which help us fund the operation of these properties. MTNL’s ads which ride on the connection are diluting the effect of the ads run by our paying sponsors, and are in effect robbing us of our ad revenues, in addition to spoiling the face of our properties and businesses. And there’s apparently nothing we as producers of content can do about it.
  4. Privacy: Of course the concern here is the same as in Airtel’s case. Today they’re injecting ads, tomorrow they could inject spyware (like some small-time private cable ISPs already do), or could inject ads in all corners of the page (like those same small-time private cable ISPs already do). And they have no business doing it.

On the money front, you might argue that it’s still a little bit of content trickling through and shouldn’t bother us. But I did some back-of-napkin calculations, and here are the approximate results.

Every page I visit consumes around 1 to 2mB of bandwidth. With modern browsers and content caching etc., every time a page is reloaded, the marginal consumption of bandwidth per repeat page would be in hundreds of kBs. On a page load, the amount of bandwidth MTNL’s ad consumes is around 30kB. Even if we calculate on the basis of absolute size of a page’s content instead of the marginal consumption, the noise-to-signal ratio here is 30kB/1.5mB = 2%

If I have a connection of 50gB FUP, this amounts to 1gB. I am being charged for a full HD movie download extra because MTNL wants to serve ads on their connection to us. And not even making a profit off it, because so far I’ve only seen ads of MTNL services in this fashion :)

How is this different from websites running ads?

Some might argue that YouTube also runs ads on the content they’re serving. कोई उनको कुछ नहीं कहता! Well, YouTube doesn’t charge me for viewing videos there. When a paid service provider runs ads blocking their own service, and consuming the service that I as a consumer am paying them for, it’s outrageous.

People my age might remember an ISP called Caltiger who started operating in the late 90s. When VSNL’s connections were expensive (Rs. 5,000 for 500 hours of browsing), Caltiger came up with an industry-changing idea – free internet. It was dial-up internet, which means that we still had to pay the per-minute rates for phone calls, but then again, even VSNL’s connection was dial-up, which meant that the total outflow from a subscriber’s pockets were around Rs. 35,000 per year including the phone bill, and not just Rs. 5,000 that we paid VSNL. But Caltiger used to run ads on our screens using its dialler software in exchange for the free internet. In effect we saved Rs. 5,000 in exchange for agreeing to have ads running on our screens. Ads served, but no money taken.

MTNL cannot do both: charge us for bandwidth, but still serve ads. And that too without our consent – both as consumers and as the real creators/providers of content.

The Tech

How do we get rid of this nuisance? Well, if you just see the source of their ads, you can see the following code that is responsible:

<div id="__BULLETIN__bdiv" style="position: absolute; z-index: 999999999; visibility: visible; top: 654px; right: 20px; display: block; transition: top 0s ease 0s;"><style> img.scalable { max-width : 100%; height: auto; }</style><a id="__BULLETIN__bdivButton" target="_blank" href="http://mtnlmumbai.in/index.php/fixed-line/landline/tariff"> <img id="__BULLETIN__bdivImage" style="height: 300px;" src="http://203.94.227.140/bg/Creative1.jpg" scrolling="no" frameborder="0"> </a> <div style="overflow:hidden; position:absolute; right:0; top:0; z-index:9999999999;"><a id="__BULLETIN__button0" href="#"><img id="__BULLETIN__button0i" name="button0" class="scalable" src="http://203.94.227.140/bg/CloseButton.png" border="0"></a>
</div></div>

Temporary solution: Blocking the IP address 203.94.227.140 in your etc/hosts file or in your router’s firewall would provide temporary relief, but since I blocked a similar address last a few weeks ago, they’ve updated the IP address in the request.

Permanent solution? What remained common was the 203.94. part. As far as I know, blocking wildcard IP entries or IP clusters using etc/hosts isn’t possible. Can any of you nice people guide me on how to block this IP cluster either using etc/hosts or the router settings?

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Let’s Fly, Pigeon in Jama Masjid: August 2015

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Jama Masjid, Delhi, India.
Shot in February 2010.

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Fresh Pink: July 2015

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Since the Monsoons are on.

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छपा: हिजरत से पहले

पढ़ने की आदत बचपन से ही लगी, थैंक्स टू हमारे दोनें चाचाजी, जिन्हें प्यार से हम मंझले और छोटे पापा कहते हैं.
और कलकत्ते में रहने वाला पढ़ाकू बालक जनवरी-फरवरी के पुस्तक मेले से अनभिज्ञ रह सकता है भला?

बरसों तक हर बरस कलकत्ते के प्रचण्ड पुस्तक मेला, उर्फ़ बोई मैला, उर्फ़ बुक फेयर में लिटरली खाक छानी, क्योंकि उन दिनों ये धूल से लबालब कलकत्ता मैदान में आयोजित हुआ करता था.

और इसी मेले में एस्ट्रिक्स, टिनटिन, आर्चीज़, और चमकीली विदेशी किताबों के साथ एक छोटे-से हिंदी कोने में पाँच-छ: दुकानों पर हिंदी की किताबें बाँचने और खरीदने की लत पड़ी. उन्हीं दुकानों में से एक था राजकमल प्रकाशन. किताबों और लेखकों की मेरी पसंद की गहराई नापी, तो पाया कि सारा मेला एक तरफ और राजकमल का स्टॉल एक तरफ. साल-दर-साल मेले से आने वाले झोलों में राजकमल की किताबें ही आधी जगह लेती रहीं.

आज भी, कलकत्ते वाले मकान में भी, और यहाँ बंबई में मेरे हर घर के बदलाव पर मेरे साथ फिरने वाली मेरी निजी लाइब्रेरी में भी अधिकतर किताबें राजकमल की ही होंगी.

खैर, लंबी रही भूमिका. तो आज की डाक से मुझे मिला एक प्यारा तोहफा, राजकमल के दफ्तर से, जो कि आज मेरे रोमांच का कारण बना हुआ है. तोहफे में है, उनके द्वारा प्रकाशित किताब, वंदना राग की हिजरत से पहले, क्योंकि उस के कवर पे जो गुलमोहर के फूल की तसवीर है, वह खाकसार की खींची हुई है, एक प्रति रवीश कुमार की लप्रेक किताब, इश्क़ में शहर होना, क्योंकि मानार्थ, और एक चेक, जो कि उस गुलमोहर के फूल के सदके है.

rajkamal

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Hawa Mahal: June 2015

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A little bit o’ Fortune

Good news folks! The photo of mine of Lohagad/Lonavala titled ‘Bliss’ has been published in Fortune India magazine’s May issue.
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Here, pictures of the magazine’s pages:
Picture of Page 113, Fortune India May 2015 issueCredits

Go buy your copy today :)

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Strawberry Sunset: May 2015

Strawberry Sunset: May 2015 / Evening and sunset at strawberry country, Mahabaleshwar.

Evening and sunset at strawberry country, Mahabaleshwar.

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Indian Institute of #NetNeutrality

A lot has been said about #netneutrality in the last few days, from how dear ol’ “altruistic” Zucky has a golden heart and wants to see poor kids in Chandauli access Facebook the Internet for free, and how Airtel just wants every poor child to access “the Internet”, to how the debate is full of metaphors like a fishermen’s net is full of fish in the evening.

So let me take a jump in the net neutrality discussion to talk about three issues that have been bugging me related to this:
1. Idea & IIN
2. The cable TV metaphor, and
3. The toll-free number metaphor.

Idea & IIN

We don’t see the connect between Idea’s IIN ads and net neutrality yet. It isn’t directly related, but it does lay down the groundwork for the idea (pun unintended) that somehow, the mobile operators/ISPs are the magnanimous fellows who are bringing all this wonderful Internet magic to you, and by association, can claim ownership to the content and innovation it brings along.

You’ve seen the IIN ads – where Idea’s Internet Network is the source of education for all the underprivileged, all who have been wronged by unfair selection practices in traditional educational institutions, and all who are mocked by their peers, but have the zeal to learn on their own.

Wow so cool. Except that Idea has nothing to do with it. Like I tweeted a few days ago, it’s like BEST laying claim for the education of your kid who goes to college by bus and becomes a lawyer. There, one more metaphor – take it and go.

Yes, Idea (or any mobile operator/ISP) isn’t providing anything beyond a connection to the Internet. They aren’t providing a platform. They surely aren’t creating the content that’s adding to our education when we decide to educate ourselves. The people in the ads could very well learn the exact same thing, find the exact same information if they were using a Vodafone connection, or were accessing the Internet through a local cable broadband connection.

If anything, Idea and other mobile operators are responsible for impeding said education due to their pathetic network quality and high data prices.

The Cable TV Metaphor

Mobile operator sympathizers have been citing the way cable MSOs operate as the model for internet access, which is, you choose which channels you want to watch and subscribe to those, in addition to a basic access charge, that you pay your MSO or local cable guy. Certain channel groups have tie-ups with certain large MSOs and not with others, so certain channels are available only on the former and not on the latter. Nobody complains there, so why the hue and cry this time?

To start with, that one industry is being run as a racket can not and should not be used to justify attempts to destroy another network and technology. But let’s keep that aside for a while.

TV and the Internet can not be compared. Here is why. In the case of TV, a cable/dish subscription is nothing but a bundle of channels, it’s a one-way medium, and we’re all purely consumers. Add to that, we do not do our daily communication and business over television waves. It’s a pure mass-media system.

The Internet, on the other hand, is not just another media. It’s not a bundle of websites, and not at all a bundle of websites the folks at Airtel / Reliance / Internet.org can decide it to be. It’s like the ocean, where these websites exist, and thrive purely on merit, either of technology, content, or marketing, not because they sign up with particular ISPs so that those ISPs agree to delivery their bytes to end-users. The Internet is not “just a technology”, the Internet is an entity of its own, and you do not get to call it the Internet if you do not let me access certain sites based on tieups your tieup sales team has made.

Secondly, the Internet has always been about choice. I choose to open Vimeo or YouTube at the time I please, and search for the video I want to see, and choose to watch the one I like. Compare this with TV, where the channel decides which content is appropriate for its audiences, and when it should be aired – the only choice we have is to either watch it or watch some other channel altogether.

I am not just a consumer on the Internet. I am also a content creator. Through our websites, blogs, social profiles, we disseminate content.
We are, at the same time, consumers and creators of content.

More importantly, I am not just a consumer on the Internet. I am also a content creator. Through our websites, blogs, social profiles, we disseminate content, of varying levels of intensity and seriousness. In addition to that, people like me make our living through the Internet. We are, at the same time, consumers and creators of content. And with this freedom to create and innovate, the number of web properties increases every day. Can the ISPs play god by deciding which ones of these you and I, or the kids in Chandauli get to see?

The Toll-Free Number Metaphor

We started hearing this when Airtel started feeling the heat of the public backlash. In fact, an email arrived in many mailboxes today from Airtel’s MD & CEO Mr. Gopal Vittal, where he insists that Airtel Zero is nothing but a 1800 service for websites.

Except that it’s not.

I can call a 1800 number from any SIM card or landline phone within the geographic boundaries, and not be charged. To access the “1800 website” I will have to sign up with Airtel Zero’s service on an Airtel SIM card. The metaphor does not go the whole hog Mr. Vittal.

Once again, the Internet is not comprised of a bundle of websites or phone numbers. It’s a place where different forms of media and platforms and properties are being created every hour, and that’s the beauty of it. “Websites” are one type of property on the web, though the dominant ones, but there are other types of properties, and more such will keep coming up as innovation goes on.

…the illusion of choice the mobile operators are talking about, is for the provider of the content, and not you and me, the consumer of the content.

Also, to access a 1800 number, all I do is dial the said number (the transaction with the network begins there), and be assured that the conversation is between the owner of the number and me (unless there’s tapping going on, in which case we have other serious issues to handle). In the case of Airtel Zero or Internet.org, the only way the ISPs can make sure I am not billed for going to their favourite sites is by snooping on my data packets (because my transaction with the ISP begins when I log on, or in the case of mobile internet, it’s an ongoing transaction). This is gross violation of my privacy, and it’s none of their business to be looking at the data I am sending and receiving.

In the end, the illusion of choice the mobile operators are talking about, is for the provider of the content, and not you and me, the consumer of the content. You and I don’t choose whether we get Flipkart for free or Amazon. It’s only the choice of Bansal or Bezos to sign up with these “zero plans” if they want more visitors to their sites. We don’t get any choice if there’s no net neutrality going forward.

If we let the mobile operators/ISPs decide which sites we can and cannot access, and do not insist on net neutrality today, maybe going forward you’ll be charged extra to read this blog, or simply access WordPress.com, or maybe you simply can’t access these, because they’re not part of the bundle that your ISP is offering you.

Do your bit today, visit www.savetheinternet.in, or www.netneutrality.in to know more about the issue and find out what actions you can take to prevent mobile operators and ISPs from taking the Internet hostage.

Disclaimer: I run a firm which makes web properties and runs its entire business on the web.
Disclaimer 2: I am trying to post this blog through the Airtel broadband connection I have at home, which after the miniscule 15GB FUP (which can be exhausted in a mere 5 OSX updates) runs at the awesomely slow speed of 512kbps. I’m frustrated with them over this, but net neutrality is way bigger than petty quibbles over data packs ending prematurely.

(Post’s featured image from FreePress on Flickr under Creative Commons licence)

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Khandala: The Ghats: April 2015

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