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 defended 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 Shadowfax 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=""> <img id="__BULLETIN__bdivImage" style="height: 300px;" src="" 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="" border="0"></a>

Temporary solution: Blocking the IP address 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?

Notes on CommunityMatrimony TVC, or Let’s Be Regressive On National Television (1/2)

You might have seen this ad in the last couple of years on the television, and would’ve either cringed at it, ignored it, or (horror of horrors!) admired it and used their services.

Here’s my take on it (first of a two-post long ‘rant’):

The strategy/advertising/marketing/craft angle

Idea: Give them what they want
They want to “save their honour which their children don’t care about”. Let’s give them that. Let’s reinforce their perceptions. Let’s not fight anything. Let’s approach the parents, because they are the ones who give us listings in the first place. Let’s not approach a matrimony ad from the angle of the people whose life will be affected by the marriage, because we need to strengthen our buyers‘ idea that the end-users are not capable of taking the right decision, or are anyways on the “wrong side”. And that it is the right & duty of the parents to choose the life partner of their children, and whatever choice the said children have is not important for the overall happiness of the overall family.

Classic before & after.
Before: Daughter was seen in public with undesirable different-caste boy.
Solution steps in: CommunityMatrimony representative.
After: Photograph of a happy daughter happily married to decent same-caste boy. Relaxed parents. Please also note that the girl was happy in both the before & after scenarios. Our product does not affect the happiness of the end-user. It’s only the regressive parents we care about, and we’ve provided them (though in a simplistic process) with much-needed (though debatable) “happiness”.

Naming disaster:
As generic as it can be. It’s not an ownable name (only an ownable domain name). It’s a descriptor rather than a name. And then there are the various variants of it – the ones you are expected to use – like in my case. Or do I use Who the hell is going to tell me that, huh?
Also, notice the smart usage of the euphemistic, almost modern social-economy word “community” instead of what they meant: “caste”.

The Execution
The acting is second-rate, the dubbing is third rate, the expressions are… well, the less we talk about it the better. The scripting/storytelling is anyway nothing to write home about.

Now on to the real WTF moment:
The enemy here, is not germs, pollution, old age, bad style, inefficiency, body odor, tooth decay, dandruff, stains, cholesterol. The enemy is other human beings, another community, and of course, our own children.

This ad takes just the opposite route from ‘catch ’em young’, where advertisers tailor their messages towards children so that they get early-in-their-life adopters (who can be addicts later on), or ads where the decision maker is an adult but the message is so tailored that their kids get influenced and then coerce them into buying that brand. Here, it’s just the opposite – attract the parents, because

  1. most marriageable youngsters would not be caught dead trying to find a life partner online, and
  2. in India, the society and parents have a sort of entitlement to choose any person’s life partner on the pretext of “wanting the best for our kids”, even though their prime concern is “is the other person from our community or not?”.

This concern is what CM taps. Do they say “we’ll find you an able suitor”? Or, “we’ll find someone who’ll gel well with your daughter”? Or, “your daughter will like him at first glance”? No. All they say is, “why let your daughter stay friends with that other caste guy she likes, when we can help you find a complete stranger (whom you can call your own because of his caste) and forcing her to marry him instead?”.

Another post about the societal implications coming soon…

I’ll be waiting for your comments 🙂

Irony? Hypocrisy? Need a job?

Do the top Indian placement websites have a pact among themselves to not air their commercials when the other parties’ are on? For quite some time now was advertising like crazy with its “caught in the wrong job” spot while was off-air. Now that Monster is not that visible on air, Naukri seems to have woken up.

Let’s keep the market dynamics aside for a moment to discuss another issue, shall we?

The spots, the most famous of which has been the ‘Hari Sadu’ one, where an employee spells out the name of his bad-tempered and abusive boss as “Hitler Arrogant Rascal Idiot”, all have one idea – that if you have lost your job, the place to go to is Pretty strong idea I must say. Everyone who is working in a job either empathises or sympathises with the protagonist. The ad simply rocks, because it demonstrates a problem most of its target segment is troubled with – that of a bad boss. The commercial is indeed one of the most famous ones of these times, especially among office-goers. We have all played the ‘game’ of expanding the names of our respective bosses at some time or the other after this commercial started airing.

Now one of the reasons for changing or quitting every placement consultant out there will ask you to avoid mentioning is that you and your boss could not get along. It is a taboo to mention in an interview that you had a ‘bad boss’. Isn’t it ironic then that the most famous and talked about placement agency advertisement is centred around exactly this one issue? The sticky-ness of this ad bears testimony to the fact that this remains the leading reason for people to look for change from their current jobs, so why are we so wary to own up to it and say clearly to a prospective employer that “yes I quit because my previous immediate superior and I could not get along, and I hope that you and I will not go down that path”?