Centre for Internet & Society

The uproar surrounding India's Internet Control Rules makes clear that in the Internet age, as before, the active chilling of freedom of expression by the state is unacceptable in a democracy. Yet if India's old censorship regimes are to be maintained in this new context, the state will have little choice but to do just that. Are we ready to rethink the ways in which we deal with free speech and censorship as a society? Asks Anja Kovacs in this article, published in Caravan, 1 June 2011.

WHAT ACTUALLY DEFINES A DEMOCRACY? It is a trickier question than it first seems, and yet it is worthwhile, at least every now and then, to remind ourselves of what constitutes the political system we hold so dear. Free and fair elections; an independent legislative, executive and judiciary; and freedom of the press—these are all vital ingredients. But what may be democracy’s defining element, or at least its sine qua non, is the right to freedom of opinion and expression: without this equal right to “seek, receive and impart information”, as the universal declaration of Human Rights frames it, a system of governance of the people, for the people and by the people simply remains meaningless. Without a free flow of information, democracy does not exist. 

It is with good reason, then, that bloggers, tech enthusiasts and watchdogs from civil society have been up in arms over two new sets of rules, notified in April 2011, that will impact every Indian’s Internet use. Formulated by the Central Government under powers conferred to it by the IT (Amendment) Act 2008, one set governs what is known as the liability of intermediaries. This determines in which cases, and to what extent, companies ranging from Google and Facebook to local Internet service providers (ISPs) are legally responsible for the content that you upload. 

The second set of rules pertains to cybercafes. In a manner reminiscent of the licence Raj, there are new registration standards for these establishments, which go beyond the usual requirements for commercial enterprises and include detailed procedures to identify all users. Cybercafes will be required to maintain and submit, on a monthly basis, logs that detail the use of all computers in the cafe and to keep backups of all users’ browser histories, to be maintained for at least one year. 

There is much that is wrong with these rules, but what makes them such a particular threat to freedom of expression? Some effects are likely to be indirect: for example, the Internet has the potential to emerge as an important avenue for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to express and discuss concerns so rarely taken into account by the mainstream media. But by putting into place stringent identification requirements for cybercafe users, who are likely to be less well-off, the access of underprivileged users in particular will be further constrained. Moreover, the combination of the need for identification with the requirement for cybercafes to keep a log of every user’s browser history means that anonymity online is now effectively made impossible in India. For whistleblowers, artists, writers or anyone desiring anonymity, there is no longer a place in Indian cyberspace. 

But the most troubling impact on freedom of expression of the new mandates remains direct: in their attempt to delineate the liability of Internet providers and websites, the new rules for “intermediary due diligence” actually add important new curbs on freedom of expression to Indian law. India’s Constitution recognises a fairly extensive list of so-called “reasonable restrictions” and these are more or less replicated in the Rules: “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”. But the Rules, which were never vetted by Parliament, do not limit themselves to these Constitutional provisions. Rather surprisingly, they add a whole new slew of qualifications, many of which are so vague, moreover, that they leave the door wide open to abuse. Thus, for example, the Rules impose a blanket ban on impersonation and make it illegal to share any information that is “grossly harmful”, “harassing”, “blasphemous”, “disparaging” or “insulting any other nation”. None of these terms have been explained or defined. 

Lacking the precision that would allow citizens to precisely regulate their behaviour in line with the law, overly broad regulations such as these are widely believed to have a chilling effect: in order not to violate the law, people begin to censor themselves—to keep quiet rather than protesting or engaging. But in this particular case, the effects are likely to be particularly pernicious because of a second provision made by the Rules: wherever an intermediary receives a complaint claiming that any information they store, host or publish contravenes the provisions of the Rules, the intermediary is required to take down this information within 36 hours. Censorship, in other words, will effectively be privatised. 

The prospect is all the more depressing because the intermediaries have little incentive to resist participating in such censorship. Given the restrictions on free speech that are effectively enforced within Indian society by vigilante groups, especially in the last two decades, the possible impact of these rules is even more frightening. If Facebook has little reason to uphold your right to maintain a page that is critical of say, Gandhiji, what prevents vigilante groups from policing our lives online even more than they do offline? The only recourse available to the owner of the confiscated information will be going to court—meaning that defending one’s own freedom of speech online will require endless litigation. 

These are worrying omens, in other words, for those who believe that freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy. But to what extent do these new provisions represent a radical break with India’s existing restrictions on free speech? Since its founding, the independent Indian nation-state has wielded censorship as a tool to both contain the conflicts that emanate from India’s tremendous diversity and to ensure its homogeneous social, moral and political development. If the list of reasonable restrictions in the Constitution is fairly long, this is because the country’s lawmakers were clear at the time of Independence that freedom of expression would need to be subordinated to the social reforms necessary to put the country on Nehru’s path to development. India’s far-reaching anti-hate speech laws, too, derive from the desire to combat ill will and disharmony. Since the Internet now makes it so much easier to publish opinions that are hurtful, or indeed “grossly harmful” or “disparaging”, the new Rules can in many ways be seen as an attempt to continue this strategy in the Internet age. 

The problem, however, is that irrespective of the merits of such a strategy in the past, within the radically altered communicative context of the Internet, it is simply no longer feasible. As the Internet guru Clay Shirky has argued, earlier systems of media and communication worked on a “filter, then publish” principle. Because publishing a newspaper, for example, is expensive, editors and journalists take upon themselves the role of filtering out the “worthwhile” from the “not-so-worthwhile”. Without them making that vital differentiation between “news” and “information” on the one hand and “drivel” on the other, newspapers would simply not be viable. In the Internet age, however, this principle has been reversed. The arrival of social media especially has made it so easy and cheap for anyone to share their opinions that the mantra now is: first publish, then filter. The gatekeeper role of the traditional media stands much reduced. 

For the Indian government’s strategy of using censorship as a tool to mitigate social conflict, this shift has two important consequences. The first one is quantitative: it means that there are now far more speech acts to police. That undoubtedly has made the state’s task much more difficult. But there is also a second, qualitative difference: it also means that whether the government approves of this or not, there will now be a far wider range of people who will make their voices heard, and thus, a far wider range of opinions that will be expressed in the public sphere. And it is precisely to stop such a diversity from emerging that much censorship in India has been justified over the years. As a 1980 report of the Working Group on National Film Policy argued: “if the overall objective of censorship is to safeguard generally accepted standards of morality and decency, in addition to the well recognised interests of the State, the standards of censorship applicable to freedom of expression cannot be very much ahead of the standards of behaviour commonly accepted in society. Censorship can become liberal only to the extent society itself becomes genuinely liberal”. 

What such statements conveniently elide, of course, is the enormous diversity within Indian society itself. Whose standards of behaviour are they thinking of? Kashmiri, Manipuri, Chhattisgarhi? Gandhian, feminist, communist? Adivasi, Muslim, Dalit? Who represents this community of the nation? Censorship always benefits the status quo, and the Indian case has been no different. The rise of the Internet has merely revealed, with increasing frequency, cracks in the supposedly uniform moral, social and political development of India that the government envisioned. If the old censorship regime is to nevertheless be maintained in this new context, it will therefore increasingly require the active chilling of freedom of expression on the part of the state. What the uproar surrounding the Internet Control Rules makes clear is that in the Internet age, as before, this is an unacceptable route for a modern democracy. A new model to deal with diversity and dissent is urgently required. 

What makes our democracy? With the undeniable challenges that the Internet throws to our established ways of operating, it is time to reopen this debate as a society, rather than leaving it to politicians and bureaucrats. The open forum of the Internet may often offend, or rattle our sensibilities and beliefs, but it also presents new possibilities for engagement and debate. Will we take this opportunity? 

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