Ourview | Weaving a web of panic

Ourview | Weaving a web of panic

The future, one is told, is in emerging markets. Countries such as India, Russia, Brazil and China are transforming themselves, consumers are being empowered and huge gaps in infrastructure are being plugged on a wave of economic power.

Besides a shared tendency for economic growth and consumption, however, there is one more thing that binds these countries together: an undercurrent of digital paranoia. Almost all of them, at many levels, see the Internet as an enemy and not a friend.

On Tuesday, the Business Standard reported that the government was looking at enhancing Internet monitoring and censorship. The newspaper says that prominent search engines and social networks have been asked to come up with a proposal to monitor content themselves. The government also wants to bring 3G mobile services within this mandate as well.

All this is in addition to the government’s own Internet Monitoring Systems.

This poses a dilemma for companies such as Google or Yahoo. So far, cooperation with governments have involved responding to specific queries and removing specific content in response to complaints. Now the government wants them to monitor and act on their own accord.

Leave alone the problems this raises for these companies, this is a nightmare for Internet users and anyone who values free speech.This is akin to asking citizens to arrest alleged criminals, try them and punish them based on their own interpretation of the law.

And the law is by no means unambiguous. IT (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011 lists as undesirable any data that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene".

Will Google decide what is defamatory or obscene? Will it have the same metrics as, say, Yahoo or Facebook?

The step smacks of an attempt by the government to get intermediaries to do the dirty work. By rattling sabres at them, the government hopes it can get Google, Facebook and others to censor content on a “just in case it offends" basis.

These steps are in marked contrast to the government’s attempts at digital empowerment that have been, at best, farcical. Remember the $35 tablet? Right now it seems much more serious about coming in the way of digital freedom.

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

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