The government’s thirst for Internet Control

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“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.

Join the Intellectual Anarchy!

About the Author

Vidyut
Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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