Thursday, May 12, 2011

India's new Internet laws go against fundamental right to freedom of speech

According to Znet:
Considered as the world’s largest democracy and freedom of speech being a fundamental piece for democracy, the updated rules for governing Internet in India are too generic for comfort. In a country driven by regional politics and politicians more than eager to make mountains out of molehills, social networking sites and bloggers have had it rather tough.

Back in 2008, Google’s Orkut was at the receiving end when a user’s negative comments against Congress leader Sonia Gandhi came to light. Termed as derogatory messages, there was an arrest made since Google decided to provide the cops with the user’s IP address. Another regional political party went on a rampage damaging cybercafes when not so kind words were posted for their founder. In another case, reputed news anchor and Managing Editor for NDTV, Barkha Dutt served a legal notice to a blogger who called her out for what he felt was shoddy journalism during the horrific 26/11 attack on the Taj hotel in Mumbai.

All these cases bring us to the updated laws for Internet and cybercafes in India. Ambiguous verbiage in the laws has dangerous implications on freedom of speech over the Internet. As MediNama points out, the rules are stringent and vague. Left to one’s interpretation of what is (politically) correct or incorrect, the ISP can be forced to bring down websites. Quoting one of the subrules in the new law:

Users shall not host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any information that is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner [...]

users may not publish anything that threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation.

So if I were to write something defamatory and hateful against a country’s government where one of the world’s most wanted terrorist was found despite their denial, I can get into some trouble or maybe not. If I were to write something against a political leader however, I will most likely be taken to task for.

The updated rules for cybercafes make it difficult for cafe owners to operate since they will have to register with an agency and have to be responsible for ensuring that their equipment is not used for illegal activities. (In combination to the new laws, the cybercafe owner must ensure that no one is posting something defamatory about someone?) In addition, the cafes will have to install safety and filtering software that restrict and possibly avoid access to pornographic and obscene information. The word obscene is left to one’s interpretation. In what might be a big blow to restaurants offering free WiFi to customers will also be falling under these restrictions. The registered cafes will be required to keep a copy of user identification and details such as Name, Address, Gender, Type of (authentication) document, login and logout times.

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