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Muzzling the Internet

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 01, 2011 03:14 PM
It is strange suddenly to be confronted with the provisions of a law passed way back in 2008. But why should the Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008, pushed through in the weeks following the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai be making news now? This news item by Sundeep Dougal was posted in Outlook on March 17, 2011.

Freedom of Expression

The Economic Times, with a report headlined Government can switch off your internet if necessary breathlessly reported yesterday:

The Indian government has armed itself with powers to 'switch off' or kill the internet during times of national emergencies, becoming one of the first few countries to assume such far reaching authority. Even as the US and other western nations debate the judiciousness of giving the government's complete control to shut down cyber traffic, India has moved a step ahead and incorporated a provision under the IT Act of 2008, giving the Central government, or any of its officers specially authorised by it, to block the internet if necessary. The shutdown can happen in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, its defense, security of its states, friendly relations with foreign states or for public order. Failure to comply will result in imprisonment of up to seven

But perhaps the report can be excused for the simple reason that because the act was pretty much hustled through Parliament at a time when the national mindspace was preoccupied with other concerns, there was not much analysis or criticism in the mainstream media, though specialised blogs did raise an alarm even then. [See one critique dating back to December 2008 here April 2010 here -- and for the record, the bill was endorsed by the President in Feb 2009, and then only notified in October 2009.]

Read the ET report further and you realise that the reference was perhaps occasioned by the following development that the news report went on to provide:

Not satisfied with this provision, India is now moving ahead to develop alternate plans in case the 'switch' does not work. The draft plan by the Cabinet Committee on Security and Ministry of Home Affairs along with Ministry of IT & Communications to 'choke' the internet at will, which ET reported last year, is also learnt to be in its final stages. 

Choking refers to handicapping the servers by subjecting it to multiple requests and attacks and preventing it from functioning effectively

But more dangerous to the issue of freedom of the internet were the recent reports, earlier in the month, of the  blocking of Typepad, Mobango, Clickatell by some ISPs, though only one of them provided a message saying, "This site has been blocked as per request from the Department of Telecom". It was 2006 all over again.

As usual, the real problem was the total arbitrariness of the process and the confusion was confounded further when an unnamed Airtel spokesperson told the Hindu that there was no directive from the government, and this was “just a temporary network problem”.

The crux of the matter can be summed up in this one quote from Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama in the Hoot: "what gets me angry is that we wouldn't even have got to know of the blocking. There are never any indications of which websites are blocked and why. We have got to have more transparency on these issues."

Medianama also compiled and reported the following:

  • Tech2 wrote about a blogspot blackout on Feb 12th.
  • CuttingtheChai wrote about Kirtu.com, where the not-safe-for-work comic Savita Bhabhi was hosted, Mobango, Typepad and Clickatell being blocked on Feb 22nd.
  • Kafila reports, and this is something that we’ve also been told about as well, that Zone-H.org has been blocked as well. This is strange, but there is a suggestion that a company called E2 Labs got Zone-H blocked, because they did a post criticizing E2′s proposal to start a cyber security educational institution, alleging that there was falsification of information. A pdf of the post here, via Naavi.org. Again, we need clarity on why these blocks have been ordered. Also read Apar Gupta’s post
  • the utilitarian critique of E2 Labs v. Zone-H

Medianama further reported that on the sidelines of the Gov 2.0 conference last Friday, Communications & IT Minister Kapil Sibal passed the buck on the issue of lack of transparency in the way the Indian government blocks access to websites. Sibal told MediaNama that we should “Ask the Home Ministry, because this is a security issue.”

As Shivam Vij of Kafila asked:

All I want to ask Kapil Sibal is: How is Savita Bhabhi a threat to India’s national security? Wait, I have another question: why should I ask the Home Ministry when the orders for blocking come from your own Ministry, Mr Sibal, and the committee that decides on blocking has only one Home Ministry representative and two from your Ministry, sir?

In theory a lot of people will say that the internet can not be free of regulation, that the government must block some sites. But this is the problem in practice: the government will block a soft porn comic  - only because it was talked about openly, discussed in the papers, and so on. Only because it came in the way of some bureaucrat’s antiquated sense of morality. Why, there are countless hard core Indian porn sites that are not blocked! (Oops, I shouldn’t be giving ideas.)

And when you wonder why the Government of India thinks Savita Bhabhi is too obscene for you, they will say national security!

If you don’t know about the Savita Bhabhi blocking issue, see this Huffington Post article.

All of this of course assumes ominous overtones when one considers the government's attitude on Wikileaks and offers an inkling of the shape of things to come when we look at the recent  release of the long awaited draft rules for important sections of the Information Technology Act 2000, objections to which were sought from the public by February 28, 2011.

So far, the following draft rules have been formalised:

Privacy India and Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore have offered a detailed para-wise commentary here.

A detailed, para-wise, criticism is available by the Centre for Internet and Society which pointed out, inter-alia:

they vest an extraordinary power of censorship in the hands of the intermediary, which could easily lead to the stifling of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech online.  Analogous restrictions do not exist in other fields, e.g., against the press in India or against courier companies, and there is no justification to impose them on content posted online. Taken together, these provisions make it impossible to publish critical views about anything without the risk of being summarily censored.

The rules are so loosely worded as to cover almost anything. For example, consider Section 3 of the proposed rules, particularly point (g):

"causes annoyance or inconvenience or deceives or misleads the addressee about the origin of such messages or communicates any information which is grossly offensive or menacing in nature;"

Imagine the number of sensitive souls out there who could be claiming "inconvenience" because of "annoyance" having been caused.

The Draft rule under section 79-Guidelines for Cyber Cafe

A critique by PRS blog | Medianama | Centre for Internet and Society points out, inter alia, that

if enforced it will end up choking public access Internet in the country, whether through Cybercafes or at Wifi hotspots, which would cover all regular cafes that offer Internet access, the airport, where some telcos allow access, or even on-campus connectivity.

While the comments for the above rules were invited only till 28.02.2011, perhaps it would still be useful to let the authorities know what one thinks about these rules by sending an email to: grai AT mit.gov.in

Read the original post in the Outlook here

 

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