You Have the Right to Remain Silent

India has a long history of censorship that it justifies in the name of national security. But new laws governing the Internet are unreasonable and — given the multitude of online voices — poorly thought out, argues Anja Kovacs in this article published in the Sunday Guardian on 17 April 2011.

In March 2011, Indian media - both social and traditional - was ablaze with fears that a new set of rules, proposed to complement the IT (Amendment) Act 2008, would thwart the freedom of expression of India's bloggers: contrary to standard international practice, the Intermediary Due Dilligence Rules seemed intent on making bloggers responsible for comments made by readers on their site. Only a few weeks earlier, the threat of online censorship had manifested itself in a different form: although the block was implemented unevenly, mobile applications market space Mobango, bulk SMS provider Clickatell, hacking-related portal and blogs hosted on Typepad were suddenly no longer accessible for most Indian netizens, without warning or explanation.

Censorship in India is nothing new. At the time of Independence, there was widespread fear among its lawmakers that unrestricted freedom of expression could become a barrier to the social reforms necessary to put the country on Nehru's path to development – particularly as the memory of Partition continued to be vivid. Although freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, it is therefore subject to a fairly extensive list of so-called "reasonable" restrictions: the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. But while this long list might have made sense at the time of Partition, in the mature democracy that India has now become, its existence, and the numerous opportunities for censorship and surveillance that it has enabled or justified, seems out of place. Indeed, though all these restrictions in themselves are considered acceptable internationally, there are few other democratic states that include all of them in the basic laws of their land.

An appetite for censorship does not only exist among India's legislature and judiciary, however. Especially since the early nineties, instances of vigilante groups destroying art, preventing film screenings, or even attacking offending artists, writers and editors have become noteworthy for their regularity. But it is worth noting that even more progressive sections of society have not been averse to censorship: for example, section of the Indian feminist movement have voiced strong support for the Indecent Representation of Women Act that seeks to censor images of women which are derogatory, denigrating or likely to corrupt public morality.

What connects all these efforts? A belief that suppressing speech and opinions makes it possible to contain the conflicts that emanate from India's tremendous diversity, while simultaneously ensuring its homogenous moral as much as political development. But if the advent of satellite television already revealed the vulnerabilities of this strategy, the Internet has made clear that in the long term, it is simply untenable. It is not just that the authors of a speech act may not be residents of India; it is that everybody can now become an author, infinitely multiplying the number of expressions that are produced each year and that thus could come within the Law's ambit. In this context, even if it may still have a role, suppression clearly can no longer be the preferred or even dominant technology of choice to manage disagreements. What is urgently needed is the building of a much stronger culture of respectful disagreement and debate within and across the country's many social groups. If more and more people are now getting an opportunity to speak, what we need to make sure is that they end up having a conversation.

Yet the government of India so far has mostly continued on the beaten track, putting into place a range of legislations and policies to meticulously monitor and police the freedom of expression of netizens within its borders. Thus, for example, section 66F(1)(B) of the IT (Amendment) Act 2008 defines "cyberterrorism" so broadly as to include the unauthorised access to information on a computer with a belief that that information may be used to cause injury to...decency or morality. The suggested sentence may extend to imprisonment for life. The proposed Intermediary Due Dilligence Rules 2011 privatise the responsibility for censorship by making intermediaries responsible for all content that they host or store, putting unprecedented power over our acts of speech into the hands of private bodies. The proposed Cyber Cafe Rules 2011 order that children who do not possess a photo identity card need to be accompanied by an adult who does, constraining the Internet access of crores of young people among the less advantaged sections of society in particular. And while the US and other Western countries continue to debate the desireability of an Internet Kill Switch, the Indian government obtained this prerogative through section 69A of the IT (Amendment Act) 2008 years ago.

Such measures are given extra teeth by being paired with unprecedented systems of surveillance. For example, there are proposals on the table that make it obligatory for telecommunication carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment to ensure their equipment and services have built-in surveillance capabilities. While at present, records are only kept if there is a specific requirement by intelligence or security agencies, the Intelligence Bureau has proposed that ISPs keep a record of all online activities of all customers for at least six months. The IB has also suggested putting into place a unique identification system for all Internet users, whereby they would be required to submit some form of online identification every time they go online.

Proponents of such legislation often point to the new threats to safety and security that the Internet poses to defend these measures, and it is indeed a core obligation of any state to ensure the safety of its citizens. But the hallmark of a democracy is that it carefully balances any measures to do so with the continued guarantee of its citizens' fundamental rights. Despite the enormous changes and challenges that the Internet brings for freedom of expression everywhere, such an exercise seems to sadly not yet have been systematically undertaken in India so far.

The recent blocking of websites with which we started this article reflects the urgent need to do so. In response to RTI applications by the Centre for Internet and Society and Medianama, the Department of Information Technology, which is authorised to order such blocks, admitted to blocking Zone-H, but not any of the other websites affected earlier this year. In an interview with The Hindu, the Department of Telecommunication too had denied ordering the blocking of access, despite the fact that some users trying to access Typepad had reported seeing the message "this site has been blocked as per request by Department of Telecom" on their screen. In the mean time, Clickatell and Mobango remain inaccessible for this author at the time of writing. That we continue to be in the dark as to why this is so in the world's largest democracy deserves to urgently become a rallying point.