Info-tech

The new Internet watchdogs

S Ronendra Singh | Updated on November 16, 2017

Members of ‘Save Your Voice’ cage themselves during a protest against Internet censorship in New Delhi. - Photo: Ramesh Sharma   -  Business Line

The Government has taken a series of measures to control the Internet, but should it be doing so?

In March 2011, the Indian Government banned several Web sites like Typepad, Mobango and Clickatell without warning. The ban had created a hue and cry amongst netizens, some even comparing Indian authorities to the Chinese iron wall.

But despite these protests, on December 5, 2011 the Government had several social media sites and internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo “prescreen user content from India and remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online”.

The next day, the Communication and Information Technology minister Kapil Sibal held a press conference to explain his action. “We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people,” Mr Sibal told reporters during the press conference on the lawn at his bungalow in New Delhi. “Cultural ethos is very important to us,” he said.

Since then top officials from the Indian units of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook have had several meetings with Sibal. In one of the meetings, the Telecom Minister asked these companies to use humans to screen content, not technology.

Proposed rules

Amidst all this, the Government quietly moved a proposal in October 2011 that, if implemented, will have major ramifications on use of the Internet not just in India but across the world. India has moved a UN resolution seeking the creation of a 50-nation super body to regulate the Internet. India has argued for a radical shift from the present model of multi-stakeholder led decision-making, to a purely Government-run multilateral body.

In addition to this, the Communications Ministry headed by Sibal has notified new Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 giving various guidelines to be observed by all internet related companies. The rules give sweeping powers to the Government to blank out “messages or communication of any information which is grossly offensive or menacing in nature.” The new rules do not, however, define what is offensive or menacing. Bloggers and netizens are worried that this may be used by the Government to pull down websites and articles critical of the Government. The fact that all this has come about around the time when the Anna Hazare campaigners have used the Internet to drum up support only raises more doubts over the Government's real intention.

Worrying moves

According to Sunil Abraham, Executive Director at the internet advocacy firm Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), all Governments across the world have reserved to themselves the right to block or take-down Internet services completely or specific content on specific services such as a page on a website.

But at the moment, the Indian Government is not following the letter of the law and bypassing judicial safeguards in its crackdown on political speech.

“This aggressive enforcement is also having a chilling effect on access to knowledge and freedom of expression,” Abraham told The Hindu Business Line.

Therefore the Government's sudden move to push the UN resolution without consulting stakeholders has taken many by surprise. There was some limited consultation but it definitely did not meet the current standards of multi-stakeholders being developed at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and existing institutions focused on Internet governance.

Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar has also written a letter to the Prime Minister recently saying India's refusal to withdraw its UN statement was disappointing. The worry is that countries with dubious records on human rights and democracy have publicly aligned their positions to that of India.

“Contrary to India's statement in the UN (October 2011) and at World Summit on the Information Society (May 2012), India's proposal for Inter-Governmental oversight of Internet is against the letter and spirit of the Tunis Agenda, 2005,” Chandrasekhar wrote in the letter.

The Tunis Agenda in 2005 – far from supporting a 50-member, Inter-Governmental body manned by bureaucrats/ politicians, neither envisages a separate entity nor a superior role for Governments in the governance of the Internet.

“In sharp contrast to the ‘mandate enshrined' in the Tunis Agenda, if India's proposal is accepted, civil society, academia, engineers, private sector and international organisations by design will be regulated to the fingers of an advisory role,” the Member of Parliament said.

Government officials are tight-lipped and did not reply to questions sent by The Hindu Business Line via email.



Published on June 10, 2012

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