Internet blocks, freedom of expression and reasonable restrictions


 

Nikhil Pahwa, of  http://www.medianama.com/ writes on FB
Four points I made yesterday at the FICCI organized meeting with the IT Secretary R. Chandrashekhar and CERT-in Head Gulshan Rai on IT Rules, Internet blocks, freedom of expression and reasonable restrictions  (from my scribbled notes):
1. I’m concerned about the broad phrases included in the IT Rules which make illegi

timate censorship of content on the web legitimate, and bring in the scope for unreasonable restrictions. There needs to be specificity in the IT Rules and the broad phrases which allow intermediariesto block content on the web need to be changed/revisited because they create the medium for abuse of the rules as and when the government/a regulator wants.2. Lack of transparency leads to lack of trust. People need to know what has been blocked, why it has been blocked, who has taken the decision to block it, and what is the process of getting the block removed (if it is my page). When citizens visit a blocked page, there should be all of this information for that specific page. Transparency will ensure accountability. (In my haste, a point I’ve made before but forgot to make here – there needs to be a public list of blocked sites maintained by the government).

3. Recourse needs to be established. If my page is blocked, there needs to be adequate protection for me, as a creator of content, a citizen and a business. It’s not possible for me to go to court in each instance, to get a block removed. Let the complainant go to court to validate his complaint within a specified time period, for which the block remains active. If not, the block should be removed. (Someone also mentioned a counter notice mechanism, which I think is fair).

4. Limitations need to be put on the actions of intermediaries when it comes to blocking. The state’s job is to not just prevent malicious content, but also to protect the rights of citizens, in terms of freedom of expression. After Anonymous India hacked into the servers of one intermediary (ISP/Telco), it was revealed that several of the links blocked had not been mandated by courts or the government, but were those critical of the intermediary. This means that ISPs are themselves potentially curtailing freedom of expression online, and this needs to be looked into.

One of the key points I remember being made was about the government also sticking to the rules, because it appears that in the recent blocks, they haven’t followed due process, even though Mr Rai repeatedly claimed that they have, (alarmingly) even with respect to the blocking of some media reports like that on Al Jazeera.

 

For the sake of free speech- Save your Voice Campaign


Creative professionals go on hunger strike to protest against Internet censorship

SUJATHA SUBRAMANIAN, The Hindu

GATHERING MOMENTUM:Save Your Voice activists sitting on a hunger strike.Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

GATHERING MOMENTUM:Save Your Voice activists sitting on a hunger strike.Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The possibility of a scenario where the government not only has access to every Indian citizen‘s Facebook posts, Skype conversations, private photographs and can also censor tweets, blogs and online conversations has created outrage among citizens, particularly ‘netizens’.

The most recent attack on freedom of speech and expression has been in the form of the Information Technology (Intermediary Rules) 2011, which require that intermediaries, such as a website host, including social networking sites and search engines, do not host, display, share or publish information deemed as objectionable. On receiving a complaint by an aggrieved person, the intermediary site is liable to act within 36 hours and remove the content, without prior notice.

A group of like-minded individuals, who have come together under the ‘Save Your Voice’ campaign, are on a hunger strike protesting against IT Rules 2011.

The group, comprising writers, artists and musicians, had earlier organised a protest and sat inside cages set up at Jantar Mantar on April 22, with the slogan ‘Freedom in the Cage’, symbolising how the IT Rules ‘caged’ the freedom of the people granted by the Constitution.

“The empowerment that social media provides has begun to be seen as threatening. This is an attempt to clamp down on an individual’s right to dissent and his freedom of expression,” said journalist Alok Dixit here on Saturday, continuing with the fourth day of hunger strike at Jantar Mantar According to Mr. Dixit, the rules would also force the Internet Service Provider (ISP) to create vast databases of sensitive information about an individual which would then be available to the government.

The group is attempting to create awareness regarding the censorship inherent in the IT Rules and gather support for the annulment motion filed by Rajya Sabha MP P Rajeev against the rules. The motion is expected to come up in this budget session. Mr. Dixit said: “No site will run risk of being dragged to court to protect the rights of an individual. The Government is holding the intermediaries responsible so that it can exert power over the citizens in an indirect, insidious way.” The campaign was launched after cartoonist Aseem Trivedi’s website http://www.cartoonsagainstcorruption.com was closed down, without any prior notice, by Big Rock, the web portal that hosted his website.

On further investigations, it was discovered that a complaint against his site had been lodged with the Mumbai Cyber Crime Cell.

Mr. Dixit said: “We understand that the Government deems certain content as capable of inciting violence and as being against national interest. But every site has always had mechanisms to deal with such content. What aggrieves us is the draconian way in which it is trying to clamp down on any form of free expression or dissent. Such regulations also do not allow an individual to understand why certain content has been termed objectionable or what an individual can do to retrieve his site. An individual’s intellectual property should not be tampered with in this manner.” The campaign for free speech and expression has gained momentum after the recent case where a professor from Jadavpur University was arrested and booked under the IT Act for posting an “objectionable” cartoon on a popular social networking site.

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Private sector censors- If business decides what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speech what will happen ?


Private sector censors
If business decides what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speech, it can lead to multiple interpretations and arbitrary decisions

Here, There, Everywhere | Salil Tripathi, Livemint.com

 In Milan Kundera’s 1967 Czech novel, Žert (The Joke), Ludvik Jahn sends a postcard to an intense classmate who takes herself too seriously. In the card, he makes sarcastic comments against the Communist Party. Unsurprisingly, others don’t see the joke. He gets expelled from the party, conscripted and has to work in mines.

While The Joke was a work of fiction, in the real Soviet era as punishment for such actions, many people lost jobs, sometimes their homes; some went to jail, often betrayed by those they trusted. In Czechoslovakia (as the country was then known), the state ran the postal service and those who read the postcard were party members. In India, the private sector provides Internet access and others don’t have the legal right to see what’s being transmitted, unless they are intended recipients, or if the material is broadcast publicly. The state now wants the private sector to police and censor the Internet.

 

 

 

Under the draconian Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, any intermediary (a search engine, a website, a domain name registry, a service provider, or a cyber café) must take down the “offending” material from its website within 36 hours. The intermediary need not inform the person who posted the material, nor would the creator get the right to respond. As Apar Gupta points out on the Indian Lawand Technology Blog, in one recent case, based on these rules, an injunction has been granted. 

These rules go significantly beyond the existing restraints on speech. The Constitution limits speech and sections of the criminal code impose further restrictions. To that, add the IT rules’ vaguely defined terms of what can’t be said—content which is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever, harms minors in any way, or infringes any patent, trademark, copyright, or other proprietary right”. Who decides that? The intermediaries.

These rules make the private sector act like the state. Nobody elected business to play such a role; it does not have the expertise, capacity, legal training, or authority to act as the state. Censorship is bad; whether in state or private hands. If business decides what’s “good” and “bad” speech, it can lead to multiple interpretations and arbitrary decisions, without recourse to appeal. In a country where those who feel offended have often threatened violence, businesses will understandably take the cautious approach and not allow anyone to say anything that’s remotely controversial, even if it is an opinion about a film.

Decisions will be made on opaque criteria. Apple and Amazon have arbitrarily stopped some products from being sold on their electronic stores, citing “community standards”. Amazon stopped providing server space to WikiLeaks, even though no government had asked it to do so. Credit card companies stopped processing donations going to WikiLeaks, without any legal order. Even Google, which has admirably stood up to China’s bullying, has had to take down content when governments have required that it does so through proper legal channels. India’s record is poor: of the 358 complaints India lodged with Google, 255 were about content that was controversial or political, but not illegal.

To demonstrate the reach of the rules, the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore sent random notices to seven companies, asking them to take down content. Of them, six complied beyond what they were called upon to do—instead of the three pages that the centre asked for, one company blocked an entire website. A few legally worded letters were enough to get compliance from companies. The centre’s executive director, Sunil Abraham, told me recently: “Companies which have no interest in free speech are now taking these decisions. They have the power to do so and they are using it without any sense of responsibility.”

Aseem Trivedi knows this well. The cartoonist who ran a website called  cartoonistsagainstcorruption.com , found that his site had disappeared after a complaint from an individual that the cartoons violated laws. Since then he has been campaigning for freedom on the Internet. Everyone’s freedom is at stake—whether you want to see cartoons of Sonia Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Ramdev, Kisan Hazare, Binayak Sen, Arundhati Roy, Sachin Tendulkar, Poonam Pandey and even Mamata Banerjee. And yet look at what happened to Ambikesh Mahapatra, the professor who sent a cartoon mocking Banerjee to some friends via the Internet. He was arrested and later roughed up. These rules chill speech.

Last year, Kapil Sibal, minister for information technology, asked companies to screen content manually and censor the Web. The demand was audacious. It showed lack of understanding of how the Internet works and revealed fundamental ignorance of the state’s role: it has to protect the rights of the one who wishes to express and not the one who claims offence.

In Parliament, P. Rajeev, member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), wants to annul those rules. Everyone should support him.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

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