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08 May, 2012

Youths' freedom struggle

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Sixty-five years after the successful end of India’s freedom struggle, young citizens are engaged in a freedom struggle of their own. The fight this time is to secure Internet freedom.

India’s Internet population, which crossed the 100 million mark last November, is expected to touch 300 million in three years if the present growth rate is maintained. There are more than 2.6 million domain names and about one million businesses are online.

Already India ranks third after China and the United States in Internet use and it is well poised to top the list as it replaces China as the world’s most populous country in the next few decades.

After the electorate rebuffed the Emergency regime of 1975-77, which resorted to rigorous censorship, successive governments have tried to live with a free press. With public opinion opposed to new legal curbs on the media, they have been watching idly as television channels under professionally weak leadership act irresponsibly.

However, they have been unwilling to view the new media’s irreverent conduct with the same degree of indulgence. Surreptitious attempts to gag Internet criticism have been on for more than a decade.  Shivam Vij, a Delhi-based journalist and active Internet campaigner, has chronicled the ham-handed and often counterproductive censorship efforts of this period.

According to Vij, the first act of censorship was in 1999 when the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, then the country’s biggest Internet service provider, blocked the website of Dawn to deny Indians access to the Pakistani version of the armed conflict on the icy heights of Siachen.  The VSNL had complied with the wishes of the government, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, without any written instructions.

The following year Parliament enacted the Information Technology Act, which provided for the creation of the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) to deal with problems like hacking and malware attacks. Although the law does not authorise the agency to block websites, Vij says, it has been resorting to censorship since it came into being in 2003.

The clandestine operation came to light when the government, acting on CERT-In’s advice, asked the ISPs to block the Yahoo! Groups page of a small outfit of the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya state and they inexplicably blocked all Yahoo! Groups, leading to a public uproar. The resultant publicity enabled the Khasi group, which had only 82 members at the time, to reach a large audience through another platform.

A similar faux pas occurred three years later when the ISPs blocked all blogs in Google’s Blogger site. The New York Times reported the event and the embassy in Washington informed the government the report was an international embarrassment. Thereafter CERT-In asked the ISPs to block only specific blogs and not the entire Blogger platform.  By now the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power.

Since 2007 social networking sites have taken off hundreds of pages at the instance of the Indian government or courts following complaints that they contained defamatory material. The Google revealed 70 per cent of the material it removed between January and June last year in response to official requests was criticism of the government. 

New rules under the IT Act framed by the government last year made “intermediaries” like social networks and blog platforms liable for the content. Anyone can now lodge a complaint against what appears on blogs and social network sites and ask for that objectionable content to be removed.   

While the authorities, in demanding removal of material, claimed it was prejudicial to national security or might create enmity between different groups, most of it was criticism of Central or state leaders. A Facebook page critical of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was in the dossier Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal placed before executives of FB, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!, whom he summoned to demand that they evolve a mechanism to delete objectionable content.

Some of what the government considers objectionable material can be attributed to the immaturity of India’s Internet users, 75 per cent of whom are below 35 years. The social networks, which can be accessed easily, happen to be the only forums where they can express themselves freely.

P. Rajeeve, a Communist Party of India-Marxist member of the Rajya Sabha, has given notice of a motion for annulment of the new IT rules. An online petition in support of the move says the government is invoking national security and public morality concerns to undermine digital rights and exhorts Internet users to tell the lawmakers they won’t stand for censorship and unsupervised information sharing.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 8, 2012.

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