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I first raised the issue of censorship on Internet in Parliament in March 2011 as a Zero Hour Mention, and I am mystified by our Government’s approach to the Internet and millions of Indians using the Internet. It defies logic and lacks any consistency with the values of our republic and democracy.
There are two realities about our country that we must always remember, and it is sometimes worth reminding people in Government, especially the Ministry of IT. We are a vibrant democracy with a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and liberty. Also, our democracy is a beacon of hope to oppressed people all over the world – they see our country and its democracy with all its limitations and problems as an aspirational model for their nations, and lastly, the Internet apart from being alternative media is also the platform for innovation and vibrant entrepreneurship with thousands of new small businesses being built on it.
It is in this background that the Governments’ attempts to regulate the Internet have to be examined.
Governments everywhere have the same instinct fear of the Internet – because it represents free and unfettered views, and unlike conventional media which is vulnerable to advertising and other forms of coercion, the Internet is completely ‘unmanageable’ for the establishment. And that predictably makes them try and put some fetters on this free and vibrant medium – a natural instinct for those in power who fear being challenged.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules being proposed, represent a serious risk to our democracy and could be seen as legal intimidation of citizens and entrepreneurs by the Government, established political and business interests and religious and cultural bigots. They are also violative of the constitutional rights of Freedom of Speech and Expression of the Internet users in the country, by providing for a system of censorship / self-censorship by private parties.
These rules are riddled with weaknesses and ambiguities. Not good for a small Internet consumer or entrepreneur, but great for bureaucrats and large companies. For example, the rules put the discretion and power in the hands of individuals or large Internet companies who will be coerced or otherwise use that discretion. This is completely wrong. In a country where there is a due process of law and with a legislation like the IT Act that explicitly provides for actions for defamation, obscenity etc – the courts or tribunals should be deciding who is right and wrong, not a bureaucrat, politician behind a corporate. Many of the categories specified under the rules are ambiguous and undefined. For example ‘Grossly harmful’ is not defined. Some of the categories of objectionable content under the rules may not meet the requirements of Article 19(2) and could infringe on the right to freedom of speech.
The apprehension about the likely use of discretionary powers has been highlighted by US Supreme Court judge Harry A. Blackmun, who said, “By placing discretion in the hands of an official to grant or denying a license, such a statute creates a threat of censorship that by its very existence chills free speech.”
These rules are badly thought of and poorly drafted. Who has drafted these? What is the expertise they had for this? Clearly there have been no public consultations on his with any real meaningful stakeholder. The Telecom Minister has had over seven open houses – none of which had any reference to these rules.
There is no doubt in my mind, as in the minds of millions of our young countrymen and women, that these rules need to be changed and re-architected. Many thousands are protesting this in our country and world over, Internet communities are aghast at India’s actions – especially since India is seen as a beacon of liberalism and openness.
Rules are required, but these rules should be created through a multi-stakeholder consultation – the ability to genuinely engage and accept diverse views while making guidelines, being specific and well-defined where restrictions are concerned, eliminating possibilities of misuse, either by the perpetrators, or by the Government itself. So annul these rules and replace them with a set that we as a nation can be proud of and is consistent with our core values of liberalism and democracy.
Another issue that’s rearing its ugly head relates to the Indian government’s position on Internet governance at a global level. In October last year, the government of India moved a ridiculous proposal to shift the existing system by having 50 governments under the UN umbrella provide oversight to Internet governance around the world. This is a dangerous view, probably propelled by those who have no idea whatsoever on how the Internet works and how it has got here. The pretension that this is being done under the Tunis agenda is worrying. In fact, when this idea was first floated in 2005, Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General of the UN, was forced to distance himself from it.
At a time when the world is looking to India as the leading light of free speech, to make a proposal which seeks government oversight over Internet issues takes our reputation back to the proverbial stone age of the Internet.
The Internet is not by the government in the first place, and therefore the government has no business policing it. To move from a multi-stakeholder led governance system which has broad representations from several countries to a multi-lateral inter-governmental system, apart from being regressive, can never make decisions which can match Internet speed.
It is unclear who made this decision and what motivated it, but regardless, we should immediately recover from this awkward international position and quickly abandon this proposal. We can’t be seen as a country insecure of free speech amongst the people of the world and certainly its own people.
India should be seen as setting an example for the rest of the world on how societies and countries grow and thrive with the Internet, and our proposal does the exact opposite.
This article appeared in Hindustan Times on May 18th, 2012