Centre for Internet & Society

Sharad Sharma, the man who is seen as one of the critical backbones of India's digital drive, profusely apologized on Tuesday for anonymously trolling those arguing for better privacy and security standards in Aadhaar.

The article by Shalina Pillai and Anand J was published in the Times of India on May 24, 2017.

The apology came a few days after Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of developer community platform HasGeek and one of those who were at the receiving end of the trolling, used internet tools to discover the faces behind the trolling.

The trolls allegedly included several other members of iSpirt, the software product association co-founded by Sharma and which leads IndiaStack, a set of technologies that can be used to digitise many everyday processes used by common people. The issue has divided India's nascent startup community like never before, and coming soon after the division over the arrest of Stayzilla co-founder Yogendra Vasupal, there are many who now worry for the ecosystem.This may also explain the apology by Sharma, who has been at the forefront of building this ecosystem.

In the apology mail that he tweeted, Sharma said: "There was a lapse of judgment on my part. I condoned tweets with uncivil comments. So I would like to unreservedly apologise to everybody who was hurt by them. Anonymity seemed easier than propriety, and tired as I was by personal events and attack on iSpirt's reputation, I slipped. I won't be part of anything like this again nor passively allow such behaviour to happen, even in the worst of times."

Nandan Nilekani tweeted in response to Sharma's apology that it was brave of him to do so. Several others in iSpirt also backed Sharma after the public apology . There was a surge of tweets in response to Sharma's and Nilekani's tweets, some welcoming the turn of events and others saying it wasn't enough. Jonnalagadda is among those who are not satisfied. "There were several individuals at iSpirt behind these trolls and Sharma's apology is not enough," he told TOI.

Aadhaar, aggressively pushed by the government, is being fiercely questioned by privacy and security advocates. Though most of these activists say they are asking for implementation of safeguards, the Twitter hashtags used by some of them include #antiaadhaar, #destroyaadhaar and #attackaadhaar, which seem to suggest they are entirely opposed to the authentication mechanism.

Both sides have used intemperate and often abusive language on social media -many using anonymous names. The latest flashpoint was a report by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) released earlier this month that said some 135 million Aadhaar numbers were leaked through government databases. There have also been accusations that private companies that verify Aadhaar credentials often get access to the full Aadhaar information of individuals. These provoked the proAadhaar trolls. Jonnalagadda, Nikhil Pahwa, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, which works on issues including net neutrality, and free expression and privacy on the internet, and Sunil Abraham of CIS were under particular attack.

Some of the iSpirt fellows and volunteers TOI spoke to had little remorse. "I am not saying iSpirt should have done what it did. But I can imagine why iSpirt reacted like this as we all have been under constant personal attack for a year now," said an iSpirt fellow, who did not want to be identified. Jas Gulati, co-founder and CEO at Nowfloats and a volunteer at iSprit, said iSpirt was an open organisation. "Sharad was upfront about it and I think it's very positive."

The Aadhaar privacy advocates, including Jonnalagadda and Pahwa, are clear they value iSpirt, but say it was undermining itself by its actions. One pointed to a February meeting of iSpirt where they created a programme called Sudham that distributed prominent Aadhaar critiques into four quadrants -`Misinformed, fearful and engaging', `Informed, fearful and engaging', `Misinformed and trolling' and `Informed and trolling' -and assigned different members to deal with each quadrant. Some of those who were assigned responsibilities appear to have taken their job too seriously .

Pahwa told TOI, "The work done by the Product Nation initiative at iSpirt is what makes it an important organization. But when people raise questions of IndiaStack and Aadhaar, many in that team respond with venom. iSpirt is unique, in that it is a thinktank that plays the role of an activist and lobbyist with a high degree of influence with the government and so they must develop processes for better governance, transparency and accountability ."

Anand Venkatanarayanan, a senior engineer at NetApp and independent Aadhaar researcher, said iSpirt should not be judged based on what Sharma did. "What we are trying to do is strengthen the Aadhaar system. Currently, they do not even have a process to report bugs. Large companies all have SOPs (standard operating procedures) to deal with issues. UIDAI does not," he said, noting that his views are personal and not that of his employer's.