India’s information technology (IT) minister, Kapil Sibal appears to be running into rough weather over IT rules framed last year, which curb freedom of expression on the internet. The rules have incensed India’s growing blogging community and piqued at least a few of his fellow parliamentarians.
On the opening day of the upcoming parliamentary session on Tuesday, the Rajya Sabha is set to vote on an annulment motion against the IT rules, moved by P. Rajeeve of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a rediff.com report said. Ironically, the party that still treats Stalin as a hero (quoting him unfailingly in its political resolutions) has become the first to stand up for internet freedom.
Rajeeve is of course not the only parliamentarian to take exception to the rules. Jayant Choudhry, a member of parliament (MP) from the Rashtriya Lok Dal, was the first to draw attention to the draconian rules late last year, and MPs from other regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Asom Gana Parishad criticized the rules in a parliamentary discussion in December.
Two sets of rules, one governing cyber cafes and the other relating to intermediaries have attracted most criticism. The rules relating to intermediaries such as internet service providers, search engines or interactive websites such as Twitter and Facebook are the most disturbing. Intermediaries are required under the current rules to remove content that anyone objects to, within 36 hours of receiving the complaint, without allowing content creators any scope of defence.
The criteria for deciding objectionable content, laid down in the rules, are subjective and vague. For instance, intermediaries are mandated to remove among other things, ‘grossly harmful’ content, whatever that may mean.
This is a unique form of ‘private censorship’ that will endanger almost all online content. In this age of easily offended sensibilities, it is virtually impossible to write anything that does not “offend” anyone. For instance, even this piece may be termed ‘grossly harmful’ to the CPI(M) party.
However far-fetched this may sound, this has already become a reality. A researcher working with the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) tried out such a strategy with several different intermediaries, and was successful in six out of seven times, always with frivolous and flawed complaints, Pranesh Prakash of CIS wrote in a January blog-post. It has become much easier in India to ban an e-book than a book, Prakash pointed out.
The rules regulating cyber cafes are no better. Cyber cafes are required to keep a log detailing the identity of users and their internet usage, which has negative implications for privacy and personal safety of users, analysis of the rules by PRS legislative research said.
Internet freedom in India has declined over time and is only ‘partly free’, a 2011 report on internet freedom by US-based think tank, Freedom House said. India has joined a growing club of developing nations where, “internet freedom is increasingly undermined by legal harassment, opaque censorship procedures, or expanding surveillance,” the report noted.
The only saving grace is that some of the IT rules are drafted in a language so arcane that anyone will find it hard to decipher them, leave alone implementing them. Sample this: “The intermediary shall not knowingly deploy or install or modify the technical configuration of computer resource or become party to any such act which may change or has the potential to change the normal course of operation of the computer resource than what it is supposed to perform thereby circumventing any law for the time being in force: provided that the intermediary may develop, produce, distribute or employ technological means for the sole purpose of performing the acts of securing the computer resource and information contained therein.”
The first task at hand for Sibal may be to explain to fellow lawmakers what the above rule is supposed to mean, before he defends such rules.