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Cordon tightens: Rajya Sabha nod to harsh IT rules

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 24, 2012 08:49 AM
The draconian intermediaries rules of the Information Technology Act that allows the government to aggressively police the internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter will continue for some more time as a motion to annul them in the Rajya Sabha was defeated by the treasury benches on Thursday.

Sunil Abraham and Pranesh Prakash are quoted in this article by Anil Sharma & Aishhwariya Subramanian published in Daily News & Analysis on May 18, 2012.

The draconian intermediaries rules of the Information Technology Act that allows the government to aggressively police the internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter will continue for some more time as a motion to annul them in the Rajya Sabha was defeated by the treasury benches on Thursday.

The rules that came into effect last year almost became annulled after a determined push from MPs cutting across party lines in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday. However, the government barely managed to scrape through but union communications and IT minister Kapil Sibal conceded that there were problems and promised to call for a meeting to address the concerns of the MPs.

CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member from Kerala P Rajeeve had moved a statutory motion demanding that these rules be annulled as they violated the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. Rajeeve received enthusiastic support from the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, who made a detailed argument against the existing rules. An impressed Jaitley commended Rajeeve for involving Parliament in the process of framing the rules. Jaitley also slammed the government for trying to police the internet but stressed that like other media this could not be controlled. "In fact, if the internet had been there at that time even the Emergency would have been a fiasco," he said.

The members were keen that the motion be put to vote and the numbers in the Rajya Sabha were loaded against the government.

However, responding to Jaitley's suggestion, Sibal assured the house that the concerns of the members would be taken on board. "I request the members to write to me with their specific suggestions. I will take up the matter at a joint meeting with all the stakeholders and arrive at a solution," he said.

This pacified the members and the government ducked a potentially embarrassing situation.

Expressing his dissatisfaction with the minister's reply, Rajeeve stressed that just as there is a provision for withdrawing objectionable content from the internet within 36 hours, there should be scope for restoring it if the original author can justify it.

The debate was keenly followed by free speech activists who have been lobbying for months to get these draconian rules annulled. The Bangalore-based Centre for Internet & Society (CIS) also conducted a major sting operation to prove how absurd these rules are. They sent several fake "take-down notices" to several companies hosting internet sites. The companies went ahead and shut down some blogs and web sites without even bothering to check if the complaints had any merit.

"The trouble with Indian government's proposal to address issues such as network neutrality, privacy and freedom of expression, is top-down. Unlike other countries where internet policies have always been developed with consultation with other stakeholders, here the government imposes its will," said Sunil Abraham, executive director, CIS.

Netizens are concerned about India's bad track record when it comes to censorship and a policy for the internet. Delhi-based Anja Kovacks, from the Internet Democracy Project, feels that many of the concerns voiced by Indian government are justified. "Undoubtedly the internet presents a range of new challenges, in India as elsewhere, that need to be addressed. Many of the concerns the Indian government expresses are therefore also completely justified. But the ways in which it seeks to tackle these problems are not appropriate for a democratic nation." Kovacks believes that the current policy will impair the freedom of speech.

Ironically, while the UPA government is busy clamping down on domestic opinion, it is planning to take a far more liberal stand at an upcoming international conference on running the internet in Geneva later this year. "It is an ironical situation where India is not following domestically what it is proposing internationally," said Pranesh Prakash of CIS.

With the government holding on to its draconian rules, citizens using social networks like Twitter and Facebook or writing blogs will now have to worry about big brother watching over their shoulders.

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