Is India Ignoring its own Internet Protections?

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jan 17, 2012 05:33 AM
India’s information technology law of 2008 limits the liability of Internet companies for material posted on their Web sites by users, including anything government regulators deem objectionable. The firms are supposed to be notified of offensive content — by users or the authorities — and then remove it when legally warranted.
Is India Ignoring its own Internet Protections?

An activist protested outside Communications and IT Minister Kapil Sibal’s residence after the government sanctioned a criminal lawsuit against 21 internet companies, in New Delhi, Dec. 7, 2011.

If that’s how the system is supposed to work, then why did the Indian government just sanction a criminal lawsuit against Google, Facebook and 19 other companies that all but ignores those protections in the information technology law?

That is one of the most puzzling elements of the legal drama over free speech on the Web that is unfolding in New Delhi.

The case against the companies, brought by Urdu weekly journalist Vinay Rai, accuses them of violating various provisions of India’s criminal code by allowing material that is mocking or offensive to religious and political figures to stay on their social networking sites. There are charges of inciting communal passions and disturbing public order – catchall stuff normally meant to give police tools to rein in hooligans.

The punishments for these criminal offenses can include several years of jail time and stiff fines. That these elements of the criminal code are now being used to target Internet companies is somewhat bizarre, especially when one considers the apparently careful lawyering that went into drafting protections for Internet companies a few years ago.

As Google and others fight the charges – today they are continuing an appeal in Delhi High Court to quash the case – they will likely make the case that the courts cannot ignore India’s I.T. law. “It isn’t a trivial defense – the court cannot dismiss it,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, a civil liberties advocacy group. “The I.T. act provides immunity to (Internet companies) and that should be the default starting position.”

A spokesman for India’s telecom ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. We’ve described Mr. Rai’s rationale for filing the lawsuit in a separate post.

The crackdown on Web companies couldn’t come at a worse time for the emerging Internet sector in India, which many analysts believe has a potential to grow from about 100 million users to more than 300 million within a few years if nurtured. Facebook and Google representatives declined to comment on the case.

The protections for Internet firms are fairly clear in Section 79 of the 2008 law, known as India’s I.T. Act Amendments. An “intermediary,” or Internet firm, “shall not be liable for any third party information, data or communication link.” There are several caveats, of course – the company can’t initiate or solicit the harmful post and can’t coordinate with the offender. Under the rules that India put into place last April to implement the act, companies must remove material that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory” as well as anything “ethnically objectionable, disparaging” or “otherwise unlawful in any manner.”

Internet companies and civil society advocates weren’t happy with those guidelines, finding them far too draconian and subjective. But at least the law required that the companies be notified of such content and be given a chance to remove it within 36 hours. (The punishments for not removing offensive content within 36 hours would depend on the underlying laws governing that content in India; in general, prison time and fines would both be possible.)

In the case of the Vinay Rai lawsuit, such procedures don’t appear to have been followed. Google has told the court it hasn’t seen the allegedly offensive material or been notified about it. Mr. Rai says he didn’t flag the content to Google or others, because he believed his duty as a citizen was to notify the government.

What was the point of passing the I.T. law if it’s being swept to the side?

The article by Amol Sharma was published in the Wall Street Journal on 16 January 2012

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