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India Weighing Looser Web Rules

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 31, 2011 12:23 PM
Indian authorities are considering revisions to new Internet regulations after criticism from free-speech advocates and companies like Google Inc. that fear they could be exposed to liability under the regime. This article by Amol Sharma was published in the Wall Street Journal on May 30, 2011.

The rules, which took effect in April, require Internet companies to remove objectionable content from their sites, including anything "grossly harmful" or "harassing," within 36 hours of being notified by authorities. Executives could thereafter face penalties, including stiff fines or even jail time, say lawyers who have reviewed the regulations.

The rules may soon be revised to add greater liability protections for Internet companies, Minister of Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal said in an interview.

Mr. Sibal said it is fair for the government to ask Internet companies to put in place codes of conduct that restrain users from posting certain material online, as the regulations do. But he said it is "relatively unfair" to expect Internet companies—which are referred to in the rules as "intermediaries"—to be responsible for third-party content. "To make the intermediary liable for the user violating that code would, I think, not serve the larger interests of the market," Mr. Sibal said.The backlash after the rules were enacted has been growing. Civil-liberties groups are expressing fears the rules are too open to interpretation and could be used by the government to restrict free speech on the Web. The regulations represent an effort by India to get a grip on the Web without the kind of direct censorship or website-blocking practiced in countries like Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

He said ministry officials are trying to "apply our minds and see if the regime can be made more rational."

In its defense earlier this month, India's ministry said the restrictions rightly require that Internet companies observe due diligence in order to enjoy exemption from liability for content posted by third parties. "These due diligence practices are the best practices followed internationally by well-known mega corporations operating on the Internet," the statement said.

Google was among the companies and nonprofit organizations that offered feedback on the rules before they went into effect. The Web giant unsuccessfully sought changes to limit its potential liability for third-party content and to scale back a list of banned material that it said was "too prescriptive."

The rules also require removal of content that is "ethnically objectionable," "disparaging," or that "harm[s] minors in any way."

On Monday, a Google India spokeswoman referred to a previously issued statement on the matter. "If Internet platforms are held liable for third party content, it would lead to self-censorship and reduce the free flow of information. The regulatory framework should ideally help protect Internet platforms and people's abilities to access information," the statement said. Google has faced requests in many countries to take down content including social-networking profiles and YouTube videos that foreign governments or users find objectionable.

India is one of the world's largest Internet markets, with a user base estimated at more than 80 million. That represents only a slice of its 1.2 billion-strong population, leaving room for growth.

Mr. Sibal, who wasn't the telecom minister when the act was passed, is trying various efforts to boost Web usage. He plans to bring 500,000 villages online within a few years by laying a massive fiber-optic backbone and using wireless devices to let Web traffic travel the "last mile" to rural households.

He said the government has to be careful not to get in the way of Internet companies trying to build up the market. "We need to ensure that we don't put conditions which are adverse to the efficient functioning of the intermediaries," he said. Despite his interest in relaxing the new rules, however, Mr. Sibal said Internet companies must "take into account the sensitivities of the countries in which they're operating."

Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, said his organization and other civil liberties groups are preparing legal challenges to the regulations on constitutional grounds.

He said the groups will broadly argue that the rules have put in place arbitrary and unclear restrictions on speech and have gone beyond the scope of the Information Technology Act of 2008, the law on which they are based.

Mr. Abraham welcomed Mr. Sibal's interest in potentially revising the regulations. "If Kapil Sibal gives this his personal time...there's a good chance the next version would be more robust in terms of constitutionality," he said.

Read the original published by the Wall Street Journal here

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