With all the bad press surrounding Kim Dotcom and his popular venture Megaupload which the US Department of Justice forced shut for copyright infringement,Vikram Kumar was quick to say no to a job offer from the internet entrepreneur. The offer was to lead the Germans latest internet venture,the successor of the now dead Megaupload being hosted out of New Zealand.
Then I met him and realised that what they were trying to do was really genuine, says the 50-year-old who is now the CEO of mega.co.nz,which offers the largest encrypted cloud storage for users. But this new service is going to be much more than cloud storage that the suffix Mega had become ubiquitous with. In fact,Kumar thinks what they are going to do next can turn email on its head. The opportunity is enormous as Lavabit,the most popular encrypted email service,suspended its services after the US government asked for access to its services.
We are offering 50GB of free cloud storage with encryption and decryption happening on the users devices and not on companys servers. All others get to see is encrypted bits. Gradually,we will have messaging on top with text,voice and video capabilities, says Kumar who left India about 13 years ago.
Unlike existing email services,Mega will not let you use third-party clients like Outlook to access the service. That will be restricted to our client. This privacy is becoming more important,particularly for professionals. These are people who have a lot of sensitive data and are wondering if the usual free model is good for the future, says Kumar over Skype from Wellington.
Kumar says his career is all about variety. A trained marine engineer with the merchant navy,Kumar worked for a few years in India before getting a Masters in International Business from IIFT,Delhi,and moving out. I have stayed all over the country as I come from an Army background. But most of the time was spent in Delhi and Noida, he says. In New Zealand,he worked for Telecom NZ,the State Services Commission and the not-for-profit InternetNZ,before he stepped into his latest role. Mega.co.nz now has five million users hosted in data centres based out of Germany,Luxembourg and New Zealand. About four per cent of this traffic is now from India.
Kumar does not see the non-encrypted email with the current free-for-advertising model losing out in the foreseeable future. Email has limitations at the protocol level for secure and privacy-protective communications. It is in this area that I see the encrypted email model as a viable solution. It has many attractive features to automatically provide privacy for everyone, he adds.
One of Kumars tasks would be to ensure that Mega does not get bogged down by the legacy of Megaupload,which was allegedly misused by thousands of users to share pirated content. Mega.co.nz is absolutely not a place where piracy laws can be flouted. In the nine months that we have been online,about 450 million files have been uploaded,but we have got just .05 per cent copyright infringement notices, he says.
A highly encrypted email service with cloud storage,voice and video would be a headache for security agencies too. With all encryption being done at user level and not on the servers,an NSA snoop,for instance,would be very tough. It is here that Kumar likes to draw a distinction between privacy and being anonymous online. While the service is made for protecting your personal data,it is not designed to be an anonymous service and wont hide your footprints, he says. He says the company will comply with request for data if required to do so after a due court process. We will respond to requests on a case-by-case basis and have policy when it comes to child exploitation material,national security or danger to life.
But the full service is a few months away. For now,the cloud service has moved out of its Beta phase. In a month,we will be better than Dropbox,the full email service with text voice and video can be expected in the first half of next year.
He claims that their storage costs are the cheapest in the world,at Euro 10 per month for 500GB. The pay for space model is our primary revenue stream, he says.
But Kumar is not all that sure the service can continue out of New Zealand for long. This is a country which draws talent from around the world and the business and legal environment is quite positive, he says. Now that this island nation is part of the Five Eyes club,where it collaborates with the US,UK,Australia and Canada over signal intelligence,it is becoming far more negative for privacy than ever before. At this rate,western Europe,excluding UK,could become the new hub for privacy companies.
Kumar says every country has an opportunity in this age of the internet. I think the opportunities lie in doing something that looks beyond the US,English and the desktop. India needs to forge its own path in finding the non-English based opportunities and also find its own business model that is different from the ad-revenue models perpetrated from the Silicon Valley.