New Delhi: Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and director of the Intelligence Bureau Nehchal Sandhu on Thursday sought immediate steps to tighten cyber security as the government began sending legal notices to those who allegedly posted inflammatory messages and morphed images related to ethnic violence in Assam on social networking websites.
The messages and images had sparked a panic exodus of north-eastern people three weeks ago, fleeing back home for safety from cities such as Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.
The government may register a case against people found guilty of inciting violence through “anti-social” messages on social networking websites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
Notices have been sent to Twitter account holders, asking them to appear before a committee on 10 September at the office of the Computer Emergency Response Team.
“Notices have been sent to at least four people who have Twitter accounts. These people were sent notices as we are sure of their identities. They have been asked to explain their case before the committee,” a high-ranking official said on condition of anonymity.
“For the rest, we have written to Google and Facebook asking for details of accounts that hosted such anti-social information, and were blocked... Once we receive information from Google and Facebook, we will send notices to the rest of the people,” the official said.
At least 90 people were killed and 400,000 displaced after ethnic clashes broke out between Bodo tribals and Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers in Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang districts of Assam.
Following that, attacks against people from the North-East were reported from various metros, culminating in the rush back home.
Sandhu said anti-national elements used encrypted communication channels to incite violence. “There is a strong case of police forces to develop capacity, not just to keep track of postings on the Net, but to all identify those responsible for them so that charge can be brought forth in appropriate cases,” he said at a police conference in New Delhi. “For this, state police forces would need assistance.”
Communication and information technology minister Kapil Sibal told Parliament on Wednesday that the content inciting violence “to a significant extent emanated from outside the country”.
The government blocked 310 webpages and URLs carrying anti-social, anti-national and hateful content, invoking emergency powers for the first time under section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, at the request of law enforcement agencies. While the government managed to block 280 web pages and URLs, it faced difficulties in blocking 30 Twitter accounts.
According to a post by Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society, 33% of these messages were on Facebook, 28% on Google Inc.’s YouTube, and around 10% on Twitter
A Google spokesperson said in an email reply that content uploaders can be directly contacted through the private message feature.
“We make it possible for concerns with YouTube videos to be directly shared with content uploaders,” it said. “All YouTube video uploaders are publicly listed by their respective channel accounts.”
Facebook did not respond to Mint’s queries sent on Thursday. Social networking sites enjoy immunity under the IT Act as they do not post content on their own. The official cited above said the order under section 69A hadn’t been withdrawn.
“Their accounts were blocked under emergency situation. Now, as per the law, we have to give them an opportunity to present their side of the story,” the official said. If they can’t justify themselves, the government may permanently block their accounts and also take legal action against them.
Pavan Duggal, a cyber law expert, said the government can take action against any person who has published, transmitted or caused to be published or transmitted any such content under various provisions of the IT Act.
“A criminal case could be registered under the IT Act as well Indian Penal Code,” he said.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia said his Twitter account was blocked for one or two hours.
“I am yet to receive any notice from the government. I will see to it when it comes. There was no inflammatory message or image on my Twitter account related to North-East,” he said. The other two Twitter account holders being served notices refused to be identified and quoted for the story.
Shinde said there is increasing evidence that terrorists are seeking greater recourse to cyberspace.
“Besides providing a pervasive infrastructure for discreet communication, cyberspace is proving to be a facilitator for malevolents seeking to enlist new recruits and to purvey a distorted version of the reality,” he said.
“Anonymity that the user acquires in this medium can sometimes test the capacities of even the most experienced police investigator. Police forces will have to develop skills in this area not just for locating malicious content, but also for identifying those responsible for posting it,” Shinde added.