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India's cyber cafes going porn-free

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 06, 2011 04:53 AM
Pornography fans in India who like to indulge in the sexual eye candy at public cyber cafes may be in for a forced intervention as a new government ruling bans porn websites, requires cafe owners to keep a one-year log of all sites accessed by customers and forces customers to produce an ID card prior to use. This news was published on msnbc.com on April 28, 2011.

These new guidelines, which were released April 11, are getting a lot of pushback from privacy advocates in India, who cite the legality of watching porn in the country.

"Watching pornography is not illegal in India," Pawan Duggal, a lawyer who specializes in IT laws, told The Times of India."It's absurd to ask cyber cafe owners to tell their customers not to access pornographic material even as law allows individuals to access adult websites unless it's not child pornography. The new rules require a second look."

The "Information Technology (Guidelines for Cyber Cafe) Rules, 2011" imposed by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (aka the Department of Information Technology) have several requirements, all of which have met with more questions and concerns over the impact on everyone who accesses the Internet through the cafes, not just porn watchers. Here are the notable issues that show some Big Brother tendencies:

Cyber cafe owners must register with an unnamed agency for licenses for their establishments.

  • Cyber cafe users must produce a legally valid form of identification prior to using a computer, such as school ID, passport, driver's license and voter ID card. Children without ID must be accompanied by an adult with acceptable identification documents.
  • If the cyber cafe user isn't able to produce legit ID, then they may be photographed through a webcam. 
  • Refusal to produce identification or to be photographed will result in the user not being allowed to use a computer at the cyber cafe.
  • "All the computers in the cyber café shall be equipped with the safety/filtering software so as to the avoid access to the websites relating to pornography, obscenity, terrorism and other objectionable materials."  
  • Webcam photos will be part of the log cyber cafe owners need to maintain for a minimum of one year, either in print or online. Cyber cafe owners will also be required to submit monthly reports to the Ministry's overseeing agency that give details about computer use, including: "History of websites accessed, logs of proxy server installed at the the cafe, mail server logs, logs of network devices such as routers, switches, systems etc. installed at the cyber cafe and logs of firewall or Intrusion Prevention/Detection systems, if installed."
  • Finally, the guidelines bring down barriers between users by disallowing partitions of more than 4.5 feet at computer stations. Children are not to be allowed to use the computers unsupervised.

Duggal told The Times that he thought these rules may very well force cafe owners out of business.

Non-profit watchdog Privacy India has these guidelines square in its sights, protesting: the redundancy of the licensing process (cyber cafes are already subject to registration and licensing), how the guidelines may make cafe owners vulnerable to liability for the actions of their users and blocking internet access to children from "poorer classes,  (since they are most likely to routinely access internet through cyber cafes) and denies them the opportunity of developing their computer skills which are crucial for the growth of the “knowledge economy” that India is trying to head towards."

Naturally, privacy is the issue that most concerns the group, which would insist on a purge of the logs after "the minimum retention period." Here's what they have to say about kids and their right to privacy:

In addition, we believe that children are more susceptible to exploitation and consequently have a heightened privacy expectation which must be honoured. We recommend that the current sub-rule be deleted and replaced with a clause which specifically exempts children from proving their identity and forbids taking photographs of them under any circumstance.

And why adults need it, too:

There are many uses of the internet for which a user may legitimately require privacy: For instance, patients, including HIV patients and those with mental illness, may wish to obtain information about their condition. Similarly sexuality minorities may wish to seek support or reach out to a larger community. Enforcing the architecture stipulated in this rule would discourage their access to such vital information. In addition, this architecturewould make it easier for cyber crimes such as identity theft to take place since it would be easier to observe the login details of other users at the cyber café.

The group is also not a fan of all the info that cyber cafes will be sitting on. "We further believe that access to the history of websites and mail server logs is a serious invasion of a person’s privacy, and should be omitted from the back up logs."

As if all those new guidelines weren't already cramping the carefree surfing experience, cyber cafes will also be subject to periodic visits by police inspectors who will have the power to demand all logs and check for compliance.

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