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14

As the scams started coming out of the woodwork, so did the government's desire to limit the travel of information. To governments worldwide, bloated in their sense of impunity, the internet was a devastating blow. Castles of fakery started to crumble and governments waged a relentless war on their own people.

It is easy in a country like India, where the common man is largely servile when it comes to powerful people, and the low penetration of the internet in the country guarantees that this number is not significant... yet.

In the last few years, the government has waged a steady war on its internetizens. This war has been on many fronts and in insidious ways that never rang true.

  • There are seven alphabet soup agencies (RAW, CID, MI, etc) who can intercept the phonecalls, SMSs and emails of citizens without any proof of guilt or warrant required. This was quietly pushed in from the periphery in the shadow of 26/11 when it was easy to sell anything in the name of anti-terror initiatives. You cannot expect a terrorist to actually be sending emails that can be picked up saying "oh, I'm going to bomb this place on such a date". Indeed, so far, the only internet related investigations - at least publicly have been those of people who emailed claims of attacks. It has been over two years since this power was with our agencies, but there is no particular intelligence in evidence.
  • We have the government making requests to various websites to take down content. It is unclear what laws are used in this situation, since only a part of them are court orders. Interestingly, these were promoted with a false religious harmony excuse while a majority of the content for removal was political in nature. In our country with its bloody history of religious disharmony, we haven't got any dead people from religious offences on the internet so far. Strange that religious fundamentalist organizations are not meddled with to curb religious extremism, but the internet is.
  • Then came Sibal's utterly outrageous demand for prescreening, which got laughed out of front pages of all but the most loyal newspapers. He quickly withdrew it realizing that he had made an ass of himself, but surprisingly, a journalist had problems with the kind of content he wanted censored, so the court gave an order asking for exactly that.
  • We have the IT Rules, which are really strange in that they allow anyone to govern anyone. In a bizarre way, it makes sense, since the government is not doing governance anyway. The IT Rules are probably the only ones where the enforcement of law does not require any government or judicial interaction whatsoever. Much has been said of the harm from such rules, so I will not repeat it here, but it should be interesting to realize that there is absolutely no way to monitor the use of these rules. No way to know what and how much content has been taken down by using them. This is no coincidence. The government doesn't want us to know how heavily we are being censored.
  • Protection of Intellectual Property is going to such extents that a court order from the Madras High Court led to a nationwide ban on content sharing sites - the ones that hadn't gone to the "meetings" with our government. Youtube can pirate - no problem, because Google is entertaining content takedown notices routinely - the objective is the control, not the piracy. Sites that can't be controlled are delegitimized. The High Court clarified that it did not mean entire websites should be blocked, which was no surprise. Still, vimeo.com is not working for me - blocked - MTNL Mumbai 3G. There are three further questions about this.
    • Does a High Court have nationwide jurisdiction at all? In the sense of ISPs in Mumbai blocking content because of an order from Madras High Court - I don't know. I used to think that High Courts were regional, but I may be mistaken.
    • Why should the cost of safeguarding the property of those who own it be foisted on those who don't earn from it? If an illegal url has been notified and still not removed, it makes sense to hold the site responsible, but why should the considerable manpower and expense of monitoring content on a public medium be the cost and responsibility of those not earning from it? The point is coercing large sties into interfacing with the government or being banned.
    • Where did the list of urls to block materialize from? Who made that list? The court order makes no mention. Whose interests were served with these strong arm tactics?
  • And then there is the entire "class apart" with the jailed cartoonist in West Bengal, and protesters for internet freedom being harassed by police, their personal information recorded, intimidation, illegal photographing in spite of their refusal.... treated like criminals, even though the right to protest is present in theory.

And the net is tightening. There are no signs of relenting. As we speak, the Indian government has made a proposal in the UN for government control over the internet. It is not only on the internet, all kinds of citizens are being labeled enemies of the state.

Take for example the extreme irony of Kudankulam protesters being accused of foreign interests for opposing the government on a Russian reactor. No proofs needed. Simple declarations are enough. A similar declaration had started the free for all on Maoists that led to government formed militia that they no longer are able to control along with the original problem. It is not rocket science to realize where the question of control on the internet is headed.

After every terrorist attack, there are tales of incompetence. Intelligence received was not used. No matter how much the rights of people are eroded, this cannot be fixed without actually doing jobs. And the government simply lacks the will or ability to do anything about it. Instead of developing the ability, there is a pretense of being capable by bullying people into increasingly tight prisons.

  • We do not manufacture any of the computers and most softwares we use. In other words, we have no clue as to what we are trusting by default.
  • Government sites are primitive at best. Ignorance is blatantly evident in the lack of ToS on the site of Kapil Sibal - the guy who made it mandatory for sites to have ToS.  There is little comprehension of how the laws translate into reality.
  • China recently hacked into US servers and identified as our Military Intelligence. Apart from the security issues for both US and India, this also is an international relations risk. Censorship will not fix this.
  • Recently, there is the question of a foreign firm being hired at extra cost to handle cyber security for India. So let us get this straight. Foreign nationals will handle cyber security for India, and the elected government will pretend to know enough to legislate it. What does this mean, exactly beyond creating some handly legislation to apply at will if needed?

The problem of censorship is not really a problem in terms of citizens freedoms, in my view. Like the government has no resources or coherent plan to monitor underage drinking, it has no coherent way of monitoring the magnitude of content on the internet. Such laws are grey areas no one applies, unless you want to attack someone and need to throw the book at them.

This, in my view is less dangerous to individuals than it is for the country, where its laws are rendered into incoherent tools for enforcing the will of the government rather than the constitution  of the country. This kind of arbitrary law making devalues the legal system itself and erodes its legitimacy.

As for the religious offenses, it is only people who want to get offended that fixate on the offensive. Normal people simply avoid what they don't like. This isn't like TV, where content is linear or limited in choice. As for the terrorists, they have their codes and secure methods of communication right under the noses of the clueless people now wasting time spying on all kinds of people because they can rather than developing more targeted methods to crackdown on exactly the ones that need caught. As for citizens who want privacy, they use TOR, https, fake identities and other anonymizing methods and will possibly be far more damaging while safe in their anonymity and reckless in their outrage than they would with real identities.

As for the enemies of the state, the real enemies of the state are sitting in the Parliament, brazenly ignoring real issues for opportunistic exploitation and facades of "doing something".

Note: I make no distinction between the ruling party and the opposition unless they have vocally opposed and prevented rights from being violated.

1

The freedom of speech and expression is said to be the mother of all liberties. This right is recognized as a basic human right and is a constitutional guarantee in India.

Unlike the United Sates constitution, the freedom of the press is not found expressly mentioned in the Indian constitution. However, ‘press freedom’ has been culled out by the Indian judiciary as the country needs an informed citizenry. An informed and educated polity is essential for a healthy and vibrant democracy.

However, the power and duty to sell news is vested in the hands of a few groups. News can be suppressed and manipulated by these groups. The reporting can be biased and selective.

People - The Supreme Power

This country belongs to its people. The people are supreme. The opening words of the Indian constitution “We, the people” speaks volumes about it. The people of this country want a change. There is a huge expectation from the leaders and political class of this country. There is anger, disappointment and frustration as regards the state of affairs in the country.

Last year, the country witnessed the civil society coming out voluntarily in large numbers seeking a strong Lokpal bill to end corruption. It was the youth of this country who supported and participated in the movement. They used the internet and social media to plan and organize this massive movement.

The Lokpal campaign, made the government realize that news can no longer be hidden. Issues which the main stream media ignored and suppressed were discussed and debated on the social media networks. The movement demonstrated the power of social media. Undoubtedly, Internet and social media has empowered the people. It has given a voice to voiceless.

The country wants the ‘corrupt’ and ‘criminals’ out of its governance system. The country wants the ‘right to call back’ the non-performing representatives. The ‘Young India’, which constitutes the largest chunk of the population, think and discuss over the internet. Internet and social media networks have provided a platform for the youth of this country to connect and communicate. They are building hopes and aspirations of a better future. They are positive and optimistic of a better tomorrow.

The people have the right to know and the freedom to think, discuss, debate and criticize. They have a right to agree and disagree on issues.

We find reflections of all these thoughts on the internet and social media.

Free speech on the Internet

Art. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Internet has been recognized as a human right by the United Nations. Some nations have even recognized the right to internet as a fundamental right.

While the internet provides the facility for every person to speak his mind and engage in a dialogue, the Indian Government has devised a strategy of ‘invisible censorship’ to curb discussions on the internet. The government has introduced laws to arbitrarily block, ban and censor content. The corrupt ones in power fear the internet. Yes, and that’s how it should be. The people should not fear the government; instead the government should fear the people.

The country has been protesting against the undemocratic internet rules for more than a year now. (Read here and here) The international hacker collective, Anonymous in its phase II operation, (Read #OpRTI) has urged citizens to file applications under the right to information Act, 2005 and bring out every possible detail of the censoring activity taking place.

The fight for freedom of speech on the internet is a fight against the current establishment controlled by a few groups. The recognition of this right will transform every citizen into a publisher and broadcaster. The people are going to reign supreme and enjoy democracy in its real meaning.

The lassitude and lethargy on the part of the government in recognizing this right is thus understandable.

Shojan Jacob is an advocate. He holds a post graduation in Cyber Laws and Information security. He has challenged the internet censorship rules in the Kerala High Court. Read more on that Here and Here

4

"While governments can impose curfew to bring 'offline' life to a halt in times of emergency, why is it unacceptable to do so 'online'?" asked @pragmatic_d

This obviously refers to the government's increasing inclination to police internet use in India in the name of security. The question was the trigger for months and months of thoughts to fall into place.

I wouldn't complain of enforced outage or restrictions of all internet use in an emergency - for example, like the 26/11 attack - though it would only add panic. Say by throttling upload speed very low, so that information can be accessed, but not passed in order to attempt to cut off communication that could aid terrorists. But this is about an emergency. The circumstances must be of a nature that necessitates it. And the call would be a security call - from the cops or Army rather than the government and certainly not in the form of a proposed law for use any time at the discretion of the government.

At the foundation of this dilemma lies the question of credibility and authority. The online life is structured differently from the offline life. They both have their advantages over the other and disadvantages, but mainly, it is about them being distinct from each other in terms of social structure.

I see several aspects to this:

Freedom of Speech and Equality

The online world doesn't recognize boundaries of states. Connections form across the globe in its natural state of being. The expectation is that people meet as equals. Differences in freedom of speech will be experienced and perceived as inequality and injustice. It will be a blot on the human rights record of that country.

Of course, as long as machines exist physically and networks rely on communication services, they can be throttled - like China, for example. But that is more like taking a chunk out rather than influencing the nature of the web.

Right and Responsibility

The general idea of accepting the restrictions or rules imposed by an authority is a psychological exchange for the protection and maintenance of environment by that authority. This is not true on the internet. The government is incapable of ensuring protection - be it social (trolls, slander, etc), information security (viruses, hacking, attacks, etc) or financial (scams, fraudulent billing/transactions, etc). It is unclear what advantage conformity will bring to the netizen for the restrictions it places.

Colonial thinking versus democracy

For a netizen to give up freedoms for a vaguely described possibility in the real world doesn't cut it. It is colonial thinking to expect one world to give up for the convenience/whim of another. For it to be democratic, it would need to have a buy in by the netizens. Such a buy in has never even been attempted or considered. And yes, the "worlds" are different enough that rules can't simply be imposed and accepted across them.

Authority

An authority is generally considered as one with enough knowledge and/or power to be capable and credible as a decision maker and enforcer for all it controls. Or the control breaks. The Indian government hasn't shown any kind of competence in the virtual world. Neither is it influential in terms of leading thought (and thus power), nor is it competent enough to hold its own in terms of security. Government websites are routinely hacked and not just hacked, but hacked using the same flaw again - which simply never got fixed... what command can be claimed, that people can follow?

For example, Google, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, W3C, Microsoft, Apple, Wikipedia, and such popular sites are a more realistic "authority", because the value they provide gives them tremendous following and thus they actually have teeth to ban or bar something and actually expect it to hurt.

Disproportionate effort for result

This, of course is more social boycott than censorship, but censorship itself is near impossible to enact on the net. There are ways over, under, around, through... data is fluid. And a person silenced tends to speak out and use different strategies. It would take disproportionately large force to even create an adequately dampened effect and would be too easy to find a new way around it - in other words, a battle guaranteed to be lost on any magnitude worth making a law for.

The US failure to make Wikileaks disappear on the net should be a learning point for this.

Relevant Authority

The government doesn't investigate, monitor or collect intelligence. We have agencies for that. Agencies that get their sites hacked routinely and mostly don't have enough computers to begin with. Why does the government need access to my information? I don't see any reason why the government should be initiating this at all, without people who might actually need this access first making such requirements known. This makes me suspicious that this is more of an access to power to control rather than a legitimate intelligence need.

Vague, all encompassing access

Passwords are encrypted, access to bank accounts, email, and many other things is encrypted for security. It is beyond irresponsible to say we want access to unencrypted everything. Either irresponsible, or ignorant of the nature of their own demand.

Trust

There is no trust for the government's intent or ability. The government has consistently and unhesitatingly used all power it has access to at will and with disregard for the citizen's wishes, and often in harm for the citizens. It makes absolutely no sense to agree to give it power over personal information. That would be masochistic.

It would be too simple for the government to victimize people by using their personal information. Ugly thoughts coming to mind include electoral rolls in the hands of the killers of Sikhs in 1984 on an extreme level, or accessing private information to harass RTI activists asking inconvenient questions... for example.

There is also lack of trust in the government's ability to safeguard the access to data that it has. If the government's security systems are so easily breached, what is to say that they won't be used as information backdoors - or even sold, seeing our propensity for scams? Would the government, in its current state of cluelessness even know how to troubleshoot security?

Moral Policing and Political Suppression

There are already signs of the internet being censored to suit taste and interfere with freedom of information. For example Savita Bhabhi is blocked, while most porn sites are accessible, or reports from Google of requests for censorship of dissent or criticism of politicians from the ruling party. This is different from - say - all terrorist websites or child pornography being blocked - which is something few will have a problem with. Even with what they can do at the moment, there are signs of irresponsible and self-serving use of censorship.

To extend it to being able to persecute all bloggers at will - for example - for having content or even comments that are perceived as being against National interest would be a disservice to the Constitution of our country and Freedom of Media. It is also ironic that in a country where media is free, but perceived as sold to power lobbies, a law like this will threaten the smaller independent media - which indeed is what blogs and social networking sites are - and will serve to complete the destruction of free speech and freedom of media at the hands of vested interests (government included).

For example, this blog could be declared anti-national for its constant and multi-faceted criticism of existing systems in the country. It is not, but then, the proposed law is vague enough for subjective interpretation to be used. It would become possible to coerce me into ignoring certain subjects or tempering certain opinions at the cost of losing the entire readership from the country I am writing for. In other words, it would be possible to silence me if someone in the government didn't like what I said. There may be ways for such a law to edge around it in the constitution, but it is obvious to anyone that it will violate the spirit of the constitution in any democracy.

But really, it boils down to Freedom of Speech and the inherent wrong for the state to have unquestioning access to the personal life of anyone, or the capacity to control or silence anyone.

I think the government should abandon this idea completely, and first make the internet a widespread and excellent quality phenomenon in the country. Make it so that Indians don't find Californian servers better and cheaper than Indian ones. Shift to IPv6. Create a learning environment for cutting edge security and intellectual capital on the internet. Have an official interactive presence with its citizens, and then try and influence reforms, engage with and resolve dissent or simply provide a countering view and leave it to citizens to educate themselves - like in offline life.

It is a continuing failure of our government to engage with people and to substitute laws for social intervention and engagement with dissent to find solutions. This power will not help. It will harm and make the problem less visible, but far more dangerous.