Centre for Internet & Society

Aseem Trivedi is a political cartoonist who was closely associated with Anna Hazare's movement against corruption in India. Having published his cartoons in several newspapers, the 25-year-old, who hails from Kanpur, launched a website called www.cartoonsagainstcorruption.com last year with the intention of reaching his cartoons to a wider audience. But barely two months later, the website was taken down and access to it barred — without any notification to Trivedi.

This article by Satarupa Paul was published in the Sunday Guardian on April 29, 2012.

"After several phone calls and emails to Big Rock, the Web portal which hosted the site, I was informed that it had to be taken down as it contained 'derogatory and defamatory' content," he says. "They refused to divulge further details and instead directed me to the Mumbai Cyber Cell where an advocate had lodged a complaint against my website."

Repeated attempts to contact the Cyber Cell yielded no result, and the lack of an appeal mechanism for such cases meant that Trivedi was left with no means to direct an investigation into the matter. He says, "There is no scope for a hearing, no effort at authentication. Once such a complaint is received, intermediaries like Big Rock can go out of their way to remove content and even entire websites, thus abusing the fundamental right of freedom of speech of users."

Part of the Information Technology (IT) Rules of 2000 which were amended in 2008, the highly controversial Intermediary Guidelines were issued in April last year. This set of rules has since created a mechanism for intermediaries to receive protection from legal liability in return for trading away the freedom of expression and privacy of users. For the in-conversant, the umbrella of intermediaries include everyone from Internet service providers like Airtel and MTNL and web hosting portals to search engines like Google, video sharing sites like YouTube, online payment gateways like PayPal and even your much-loved social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Once these intermediaries receive a complaint against any website, photo, blog, status or comment, the guidelines require that they take action against the content within 36 hours.

Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project (IDP) says, "While a set of guidelines is required for what is acceptable on the web, the vague directives of the Intermediary Guidelines makes it possible for just about anyone to complain against any content on grounds ranging from grossly harmful, disparaging, hateful, to ethnically and racially objectionable." With no clear cut definitions for these terms, Kovacs says that the Guidelines have made cyber polices out of all and sundry, who can now complain about anything that they might find 'offensive'. "And since intermediaries are after all more concerned about their businesses than the rights of users, in a bid to avoid legal hassles, they end up over-complying and taking down more than what is required," she says.

Sunil Abraham, Executive Director, Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), elaborates, "There are four things that are worrisome in the Intermediary guidelines. Firstly, they place additional unconstitutional limits on Freedom of Expression. Second, there is no transparency and no proper recourse to the person whose content has been censored. Moreover, instead of a court deciding what makes content illegal, private intermediaries get to decide. And there is no penalty for anyone abusing the take-down notice system."

 Since intermediaries are after all more concerned about their businesses than the rights of users, in a bid to avoid legal hassles, they end up over-complying and taking down more than what is required. — Anja Kovacs

Little wonder then that while Trivedi's website was taken down, a 20-year old student named M. Karthik was arrested in Hyderabad for posting comments against religion and more recently, Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor from Kolkata was arrested for merely circulating a 'defamatory' cartoon of Mamata Banerjee.

A motion for annulment of these rules has now been proposed in the Rajya Sabha by MP P. Rajeeve. Last Saturday, a number of organisations like IDP, CIS and others, including Trivedi's Save Your Voice campaign organised discussions, protests and a press conference in Bangalore and New Delhi simultaneously to raise awareness about the draconian rules and to garner support for the motion of annulment. Regular Internet users can write to their Members of Parliament in the upper and lower house and sign a petition on change.org to urge their MPs to support and help pass the annulment.

"Unlike the SOPA and PIPA bills of the US which had financial roots, the Intermediary rules here are attaining more and more political hues," says Trivedi. Hence, the only way to tackle the loopholes in the Intermediary Rules is to annul it or re-draft it from scratch to ensure that India doesn't become another China-in-the-making.