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 Freedom of Expression
 
From Cyberia to Siberia: Price of protecting privacy
Liberty Institute, India Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ravi Shanker Kapoor
The draft rules, derived from the Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008, stipulate that hosts or owners of websites must take action against “objectionable content” that is considered “disparaging,” “harassing,” “blasphemous,” or “hateful.” They are ordered to act against anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign countries, or public order.” This approch reflects the belief among our political masters that the lesser mortals need to be constantly monitored and reprimanded for infractions. This effort to police internet is yet another assault on the freedom of expression, writes Ravi Shanker Kapoor.

The recent government effort to police blogs is yet another assault on the freedom of expression. It emanates from the belief among our political masters that the lesser mortals need to be constantly monitored and, if need arises, reprimanded for infractions. And, of course, only our betters can define what constitutes an infraction.

The draft rules, derived from the Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008, describe the due diligence an intermediary is expected to carry out. An “intermediary” is an entity that?on behalf of another?receives, stores, or transmits any electronic record. So, intermediaries include telecom networks, web-hosting and Internet service providers, search engines, online payment and auction sites, cyber cafes, and even bloggers.

The proposed rules stipulate that hosts or owners of websites must take action against “objectionable content” that is considered “disparaging,” “harassing,” “blasphemous,” or “hateful.” They are ordered to act against anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign countries, or public order.”

Such verbiosity, however, does not fool everybody about the nefarious designs of our political masters. As Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of the news and analysis website, MediaNama, was quoted in The Hindu (May 11, 2011): “These rules give the Indian government the ability to gag free speech, and block any website it deems fit, without publicly disclosing why sites have been blocked, who took the decision to block it, and, just as importantly, providing adequate recourse to blogs, sites and online and mobile businesses, for getting the block removed.”

Three points need to be made in this regard. First, there is absolutely no need to bring in any rules to monitor or regulate blogs and other modes of communication on the Net. Such communications, unfettered by governmental or other controls, offer a platform to common citizens to express their views about anything under the sun.

It is true that often the postings by Indian bloggers and others are not the best examples of elegant prose, poise, and sobriety; apart from bad English, there are vituperation, racial abuse, etc. But even the most abusive of Internet communications have not caused any law and order problem. Nor has there been any demand from any section?not even from any tetchy group. So, why should there be an attempt to impose censorship in the first place?

Second, if the government decides to regulate cyberia, it will call for a huge drain on the public exchequer. For the task would truly gargantuan?countless blogs, the sites of all newspapers, magazines, news channels, innumerable portals, etc. Then there are websites of foreign media houses and organizations. Who would regulate them? The proposed rules would be practically unimplementable.

When laws are unimplementable, they weaken the individual, strengthen the state, and promote discretion in the affairs of state. The most likely consequence: officers of the state would use the ban on breathing at will?for rent-seeking or repression.

And, finally, there is the issue of burden on our law-enforcement apparatus. Have our cops solved all cases? Have our courts disposed of the millions of cases that have been waiting for years?

The proposed rules are a gauche attempt by meddlesome mandarins to control the Net. It is perhaps the first time that the Indian government has embarked on such a venture in India, though Internet censorship is rampant in repressive regimes like China, Iran, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.

Unfortunately, freedom of expression is facing relentless assaults not just from the state. An assortment of forces—the Left and the Right, the pre-modern mullahs and postmodern intellectuals, publicity hungry outfits and rabid busybodies—is busy in activities that end up shrinking the sphere of individual liberty (and, concomitantly, augmenting the scope and role of Indian state). It is a veritable Inquisition. Unlike the original Inquisition—which was an ecclesiastical tribunal or institution of the Roman Catholic Church for combating or suppressing heresy—the contemporary enemies of individual liberty and open society are a multifarious lot who want to proscribe anything and everything that can “hurt the sentiments” of any community, creed, or group. It is like a rainbow coalition against individual liberty. They inveigh against books, movies, songs, etc; often the protest becomes violent.

With a frightening frequency, demands are made for ban of this or that book, movie, song, etc, because it “hurt the sentiments” of some persons, groups, or communities. This is despite the fact that ‘sentiments’ are arbitrary and subjective. Some Hindus’s sentiments may get hurt by M.F. Husain’s Saraswati painting, while others are not offended. Similarly, Taslima Nasreen’s novels may or may not hurt the sentiments of the Muslims. The predominantly Christian West was not offended by The Da Vinci Code movie, while many Indian Christians were.

The social and cultural backdrop adds an alarming dimension to the government effort to control the Net. A draconian fiat may see the light of the day without much protest.

This article was published in the Liberty Institute on Sunday, May 22, 2011.
Author : Mr Kapoor is a journalist and commentator on current affairs based in Delhi.
Tags- Find more articles on - Information Technology Amendment | internet censorship | IT Act | privacy | social media

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