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.