Sushant Sinha, the founder of the online searchable legal database Indian Kanoon and also a doctoral candidate in computer science at the University of Michigan , talks to Subaltern Media about Indian Kanoon, issues of knowledge divide, law and the layperson, and free vs open source:
1. What are your views about the knowledge divide within India and India vs countries we can learn from?
I feel that the knowledge divide in India is huge. The divide is not between rich and poor. Even rich people have very little knowledge about most of the things such as government functioning, policy, law, finance and technology. Right now it is very difficult for common people to quickly understand any of these issues. So when people have to exercise their choice in these issues, they often find themselves quite helpless.
When I look at the United States, I find that people have taken a large number of projects to bring out the knowledge. Wikipedia, Slashdot, blogs and accessibility of almost any system through computer have significantly simplified the process of obtaining and updating the knowledge. These projects are very interactive and bring out people’s opinions that significantly enriches the knowledge landscape. I think India will not be too far behind on this. We are catching up on computerising different systems, developing technologies to make knowledge easily accessible and encouraging people to participate in the knowledge creation process.
2. What is the significance of knowledge about law and why should lay users be interested in it?
Laws touch the daily life of an Indian in profound ways. They empower citizens with a number of rights and regulate a variety of activities. Take example of criminal laws. Do we know what to do if we mistakenly hit someone with a car? Do we know what powers police have on the issue and what all issues we need to be careful about? Often people do not know about it and what happens in practice is that police will show you grave outcomes and ask you for bribe. Even honest people do not have enough information and confidence to say no to
If we go to the civil law, the situations are worse. We sign numerous terms and conditions documents while taking up a job or taking out loans or purchasing insurance policy or any other product. Almost all these documents have some very bad clauses but people have no idea about it and trust such documents thinking that it will be reasonable. Courts have stuck down some of these clauses but have upheld a number of them. In these situations, I feel lay users should definitely know what their rights and obligations are in order to evaluate the consequences of signing such documents.
Overall I feel that the lack of law information has kept people at the mercy of lawyers and other bodies even for basic issues in which laws are clear or court judgements have straightened out the issues. There is no easy way for people to seek a second opinion or to educate themselves of the pertinent issues.
3. What is the significance of a database like Indian Kanoon and how does it differ from other similar databases or Google?
You have to pay loads of money to access any other comprehensive law databases. It was sad that before Indian Kanoon there was no comprehensive law database that was publicly available.
Beside making documents publicly available, Indian Kanoon brings out a number of technological innovations to simplify finding the most appropriate law documents. First of all the acts are very large and in most scenarios just a few section of laws are applicable. Finding most applicable sections from hundreds of pages of law documents is too daunting for common people. So, Indian Kanoon divides law documents into individual clauses and when people query, it presents the most specific law clauses that match the query.
Laws are often vague and one needs to see how they have been interpreted by the judicial courts. Currently, the laws and judgements are separately maintained and to find judgements that interpret certain law clauses is difficult. Indian Kanoon integrates law clauses with the court judgements and such integration allows it to automatically determine the most relevant law clauses and court judgments.
Well, Google is not a database. It is a generic search engine over data that is available on the Internet. So it really does not understand the law document structures and how they relate to each other. Indian Kanoon exploits such relationship to find out the most relevant law clauses and court judgements.
4. Suggest a way that a lay user (who would normally think law does not concern him/her) could use the site?
I myself do not know much of law but with the help of Indian Kanoon I have been able to quickly verify facts and satisfy my legal doubts. For example, the other day I read in the newspaper that “non-competition clauses” in employment contract has termed to be illegal. So I went to Indian Kanoon and searched for “non competition in employment” and found out a whole set of judgements in which courts have stuck down non competition clause. There were various variants of non compete clauses like “no solicitation clauses” and it was quite interesting to read these judgements.
5. How can the wider legal community and lay users contribute to its development, expansion, and upkeep?
There are a number of things I am working on to enable legal community make the law documents richer. Currently Indian Kanoon cannot answer questions like “list of judgements in which a particular law section was held” and “search only in family law judgements”. The problem is that we do not have enough semantic information about judgements. So I want to enable common users to start tagging documents. There will be two kinds of tagging: categorising court judgements and laws into broad categories like family law, constitutional law, right to equality etc and secondly, tag whether a judgement explains, bolsters, or overturns a given law or judgement. The data once generated by the users will be available to everyone under a open data license.
The second idea I have in mind is to have short summaries of each document. It will be great if people could write summaries of court judgements that they have read. Indian Kanoon will direct people to write such summaries on Wikipedia and in the end Wikipedia will be very rich in terms of Indian law documents (which currently it is highly deficient).
6. What are other significant areas of knowledge divide in India that individuals and groups can work towards?
In future, a lot of data related to government functioning will be available because of computerisation of systems and the right to information act. I think it will be really fun to look at these data sets and see how we can develop technology to make knowledge discovery easy. Beside that, the internet has a vast amount of data and I would suggest that individual students should use to verify their understanding of what is taught in school.
7. You have used open-source technologies for the development of your service. What is the significance and salience of OS for South Asia.
There is an ideological difference between free software and open-source software that we should know before we use these terms. Here is what Richard Stallman believes the difference is http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html
You can find a lot of articles talking about the benefits of free software over proprietary software. But what is interesting is to think about the advantages that free software provides to poor countries like India. First if you see it is very easy to participate in a free software project. If you have to modify a program, you do not have to work in the company that made that program. So it is very easy for the upcoming technological class in India to take up a free software, modify it and adapt it. It is very easy to gain knowledge about
complex technologies like databases that is very difficult to learn otherwise.
The second issue is of scale. Free software does not restrict redistribution and so it significantly reduces redistribution costs. If we pay for each copy then it will be very difficult to reach billions of people.
In the end if you see many socially important software projects may not have any business model and using free software significantly reduces the cost for starting such projects.