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India second in keeping tabs on netizens

by Prasad Krishna last modified Nov 15, 2012 09:04 AM
India ranks second globally in accessing private details of its citizens, next only to the US, if the latest data from Google is to be believed.

The article by Ishan Srivastava was published in the Times of India on November 15, 2012, Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

The transparency report by the internet search giant lists out requests it received from governments across the world to access information on the users of its various services.

In the first six months of 2012, India made 2,319 requests involving 3,467 users. In comparison, the US made 7,969 requests in the same period and Brazil, which comes third, sent 1,566 requests. Globally, there were 20,938 requests for user data during the January-June period. The data can include your complete Gmail account, chat logs, Orkut profile and search terms among others. These reports are prepared by Google every six months, and were started in July-December 2009.

The requests for user data from India doubled from 1,061 in July-December 2009 to 2,207 in July-December 2011.

"Though India is a large country with a significant number of internet users, this data is nonetheless an indicator of growing surveillance," said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a Bangalore-based organization looking at issues of public accountability, internet freedom and openness.

"India lacks a general privacy law that helps set guidelines for such user requests, despite privacy being a constitutional right as part of the right to life," said Prakash.

India also actively sends requests to take down content which it deems defamatory and against national security. While the number of court orders for taking down web content has remained almost stagnant over the years, there has been a rise in the number of requests by the executive and police. Between January and June this year, there were 20 court orders and 64 requests from executive/police that resulted in 596 items being taken down from the web. In comparison, there were only eight court orders and 22 executive/police requests in January-June 2010, resulting in 125 items being taken down.

"The government does not always specify the reason for which they want access. They just want access, what they do with the information is not known to us," said a legal adviser to an MNC. "These requests come with a threat to our continued operation in India."

Falsified court orders are also being employed to seek removal of content. Three such court orders were sent to Google "that demanded the removal of blog posts and entire blogs for alleged defamation." One order was said have been issued by a local court in Andheri, Mumbai while the other two by the Delhi high court. But all the three were found to be fake.

Google says a single court order was responsible for removal of 360 items this year as they "contained adult videos that allegedly violated an individual's personal privacy." While such orders have a positive impact like curbing pornography and violent content, governments at every level have also tried to use these requests to take down unfavourable content or criticism.

In January-June 2011 period, Google received "requests from state and local law enforcement agencies to remove YouTube videos that displayed protests against social leaders or used offensive language in reference to religious leaders". Google rejected a majority of these requests. It also received a request from a law enforcement agency to remove 236 communities and profiles from Orkut that were critical of a local politician. Google did not remove them either.

"Prior to 2009, government had limited powers of interception. However, after 26/11 they gave themselves huge powers to block and monitor content," said Supreme Court lawyer Pavan Duggal. "Data privacy is non-existent in India." He said that the A P Shah Committee, which was formed to recommend principles for a privacy law, has submitted its report to the Planning Commission and now it is up to the government to take it to the next stage.

Both Prakash and Duggal said that technology companies in India, including telecom players, should come out with similar transparency reports as Google. A report by international watchdog Privacy International says that Bharti Airtel, in its 2010-2011 annual report, said it had received 422 appreciation letters from law enforcement agencies for assistance in lawful interceptions. "The Indian IT Act requires electronic audit by firms but the law is silent on how this audit is filed," said Duggal.

Globally, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Twitter release transparency reports apart from Google.

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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