There are many lessons to be learnt from the current turmoil in North Africa. Governments that seemed unshakeable for decades are now either lying in pieces or teetering on the brink. In Libya and Egypt citizens, it appears, finally got fed up with the status quo that kept most poor and some rich.
One lesson for most tyrants and corrupt governments— and their desperate opponents—was that there is always a tipping point. It may take years to reach there and it might rely on the most innocuous catalysts, but there is a point beyond which your masses will rise.
The other lesson was that the internet is much more powerful than it sometimes looks like. Control that and you can strangle your people. And it appears that of all the possible lessons from North Africa, the government of India has decided to focus on this one.
The draft of the Information Technology (due diligence observed by intermediaries guidelines) Rules , 2011, makes for a disturbing reading. Read a little between the lines and it becomes clear that the government is looking to issue itself an all-access licence to censor content and websites at will. Newspapers such as The Times of India and The Economic Times, and specialist blogs such as Medianama.com have already reported about how these new rules could be used to muzzle bloggers.
What is particularly disturbing about the draft rules is the room for interpretation given to the government. The draft states that intermediaries—meaning anyone who allows users to publish any content on a website—must not allow information that is harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, blasphemous, objectionable, defamatory, vulgar, obscene… (it goes on like that for a bit). And then, for good measure, it also adds anything that causes annoyance or inconvenience.
The problem here is that a lot of information and commentary that is “objectionable, annoying and inconvenient” to the government is also what needles it to stay on the straight and narrow. History has also taught us that nothing good comes out of a law with the word “blasphemy” in it. Finally this legal latitude can be used to shutter any website even for mindless comments posted on the site.
All this comes at a time when Pranab Mukherjee has announced budget plans to connect all panchayats in the country via broadband in three years. If these new rules are implemented, the panchayats can then look forward to enjoying an Orwellian stream of good news and positive analysis. While the real world smoulders.
Hosni Mubarak and friends would approve.
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