Centre for Internet & Society
Digerati See Censorship in New Web Rules

India has introduced stringent new rules to police the Web and remove content that goes out of bounds.

Attention Indian bloggers and social media fiends: the next time you’re composing a witty tweet or posting an edgy item on Facebook, please take care that what you’re writing isn’t “grossly harmful” or “harassing” or “ethnically objectionable” or – oh, the humanity! – “disparaging.” This news was published in the Wall Street Journal on May 2, 2011.

Digerati See Censorship in New Web Rules

India has introduced stringent new rules to police the Web and remove content that goes out of bounds.

Those are among the types of content that are banned under Internet regulations the Indian government recently put into effect to enforce sections of an information technology law passed in 2008. It’s up to “intermediaries” – Internet service providers, social networking sites, etc. – to police the Web and remove content that goes out of bounds.

As word of the new rules spreads, digital media barons and commoners alike are freaking out. Is the world’s largest democracy ever-so-quietly trampling on free speech by enacting a censorship regime for the Web? How exactly will these rules affect day-to-day activity online?

On the MediaNama digital media blog, Nikhil Pahwa offers a bleak analysis: “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,” he writes.

Concerns are also pouring out on Twitter, with user posts like “Looks like we will become China soon” and “Moving to a more draconian state” and “When the hell did this happen?”

To shed some light on that last question: These rules merely advance what has been a quiet effort for several years by the Indian government to get a grip on the Web without the kind of blanket censorship or Website-blocking practiced in countries like Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

In a front-page story last year, The Wall Street Journal showed how Indian police and government authorities, acting on complaints from Web users, have successfully pressured Google Inc. and other companies to make inaccessible to Indian users Web content that offends figures ranging from Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi to Hindu nationalist leader Balasaheb Thackeray.

The IT law was in effect then but as the government issues more specific rules to enforce it, its powers appear to be broadening–or at least coming into much sharper focus. The cumulative impact of the government’s Web regulation regime, says Sunil Abraham of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore, is to foster a culture of self-censorship not just by Web users but also Internet companies that will likely err on the side of caution by removing anything that seems edgy or potentially offensive.

Mr. Abraham cited as an example of overreach in the rules a provision that bans information that “impersonates another person,” which he said would outlaw everything from parody writing in which the author pretends to be in the shoes of a celebrity to Twitter accounts such as Dr.YumYumSingh, whose tweets are a running send-up of the honorable Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “There are many occasions when people take on a pseudonym, or pretend to be someone else. If it isn’t done with the intention of financial fraud, there’s no need to clamp down on it,” he said.

Mr. Abraham also lamented that people whose content is taken down appear to have no recourse under the law to protest to ISPs or the government. It’s up to the ISPs to offer such recourse in their terms-of-use, if they are so generous.

To put this in its proper perspective, Indian authorities have never tried to disable Web access for large segments of the population or block very large numbers of sites, so far as we know. CIS revealed through a Right-to-Information request that 11 sites are currently being blocked, including a Facebook page that disparages constitutional framer and low-caste champion B.R. Ambedkar. There are certainly countries practicing a much, much higher degree of outright Web censorship.

But is fostering self-censorship–if that’s what’s happening here–just as bad as censorship itself?

Let us know what you think of the new rules in the Comments.

Read the article originally published in the Wall Street Journal here

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