Saturday, December 10, 2011

Internet Censorship

Media reports invariably say that Union Cabinet Minister Kapil Sibal’s meetings earlier this month with representatives of Facebook, Google and Microsoft were an “attempt” to censor the Internet. In fact, the government has gone well beyond that; the Internet is effectively being censored right now, and in ways that strike at the root of our democracy.

I can vouch for this from first-hand experience, for the problem of restricted access to this blog reported earlier seems to be rooted in the “Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011” the government published in April this year.

As Heather Timmons of The New York Times reported on 7 December, the Rules “require ‘intermediaries,’ companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo … to respond quickly if individuals complain that content is ‘disparaging’ or ‘harassing,’ among other complaints. If the complainant’s claim is valid, these companies must take down the offensive information within 36 hours.”

Timmons cited an unpublished study by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore that concluded the Rules were already “chilling” free speech on the Internet in India. That finding was based on the responses of major Internet service providers to bogus notices sent by CIS claiming to be offended by third party content; in six of seven cases, the supposedly offensive pages were removed without question. One of the censored items was an entirely legitimate comment on a news report about the Telengana movement; the “intermediary” removed it as well as 14 other comments on the story.

In my case, the block has been on the entire blog as well as on several items critical of the mass media. Who asked for the restrictions remains a mystery; Google does not respond to emailed enquiries from lowly bloggers, so I have no quick way of finding out. My guess is that it is The Times of India, which has a track record of trying to stifle critical blogs.

The Rules that make this situation possible are broadly and badly phrased. Internet service providers are required to act on complaints that content is “harassing, blasphemous, defamatory” or “derogatory.” Content that “threatens … friendly relations with foreign States” or is “insulting any other nation” is likewise on the hit list. These are all grounds that in the normal course of law would require a judicial finding that weighs a set of complex factors. No procedure is set out to assess the legitimacy of a complaint. Nor is there a provision for the owner of the content to present a defence. In fact, there is none even requiring that the content owner be notified of the action.

As they stand, the April Rules are indefensible. Their ministerial promoters and apologists, sworn to uphold the Indian Constitution and the integrity of our democracy, should be ashamed of themselves.

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