New Delhi: It was a motley group of students, technology professionals and activists that led the protests against internet censorship at Jantar Mantar in the national capital. Donning the famous Guy Fawkes masks (which has become the identity of Anonymous the world over), the group beamed “Raise your voice, save your voice.”
The slogans were a mix Anonymous’ tagline - We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We are united by one. Divided by zero and famous lines by the left leaning poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. However, all messages ended with one statement “Free Internet”.
Coordinated by the Internet activist group Anonymous, similar protests took place across 16 cities of the country on Saturday evening.
“This is just the beginning of the revolt,” said one of protesters, who makes documentary films. “If the government doesn’t listen to our voice and doesn’t work towards freeing the Internet, we will keep protesting.”
Anonymous is a secretive Internet group that originated in 2003, its members largely unknown to each other, to fight any move it deems is against free speech on the Internet.
Anonymous first struck India this year on 17 May, when they made the websites of the Supreme Court and the ruling Congress party inaccessible to register their protest against the government’s bid to curb online access after several video-sharing websites like The Pirate Bay and Vimeo were banned by a court order. They had subsequently stated that if the file-sharing websites were not unblocked, they would carry more attacks on government websites and even leak documents.
While the group claimed to have brought down on Saturday the website of Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-in), which is the nodal agency for responding to cyber attacks in the country, the portal was back again in a few hours. Mint could not independently verify this with Cert-in. Till late evening there were no reports on attacks on any other websites. Members of the group also attacked the website of state-run Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd on Thursday.
The protest that lasted almost two hours saw almost 200 people joining it in New Delhi. Coordinated through social media websites like Facebook and Twitter mostly, police permission was sought before-hand in a bid to make it non-violent.
“The government can’t put blanket ban on file sharing websites, they should block specific material if they have to curb piracy,” said a student who came on pursuance of a friend who is a fan of file sharing websites. “Internet censorship is not the way to deal with the issue of piracy.”
Concerns about Internet freedom in India stem from an update to the country’s Information Technology Act that was given by the IT and communications ministry in April last year.
The new rules regulating Internet companies - providers, websites and search engines - instruct them that they must remove “disparaging” or “blasphemous” content within 36 hours if they receive a complaint by an “affected person”.
Groups such as the Center for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based research and advocacy group, have waged a year-long campaign for amendments to the rules.
Industry groups have also objected, saying the new regulations are unclear and impossible to implement.
“A lot of education is required in this field,” secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India S.P. Jairath told AFP.
The government has become embroiled in a row with social networks after Telecoms Minister Kapil Sibal held a series of meetings with IT giants Google, Yahoo! and Facebook last year to discuss the pre-screening of content.
The minister was said to have shown Internet executives examples of obscene images found online that risked offending Muslims or defamed politicians, including his boss, the head of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi.
Since these meetings, 19 Internet firms including Google, Yahoo! and Facebook have been targeted in criminal and civil cases lodged in lower courts, holding them responsible for content posted by users.
At the forefront of the protest march was a cartoonist, who claimed that the government banned his website on the complaint of a political leader.
“This is getting worse by the day,” he said. The person said that his group members have been staging similar protests since December last year on the issue.
Even though the country’s Internet penetration is as low as 10%, the issue of censorship of content by government has been in the headlines for a several months now.
Another protestor who helped coordinate much of the protest in Delhi claimed that over 50,000 people , just in New Delhi, reached out for Saturday’s scheduled meet.
“Even through our Internet penetration is so low, we are happy that so many people are taking interest in the issue, as the Internet users increase the voices against censoring the world wide web will also get louder,” he said.
AFP also contributed to the story.