Centre for Internet & Society

The debate over the "Intermediaries Guidelines" as part of the Information Technology Act, 2000 in Parliament brought focus to the issue of censorship and lack of accountability of governing bodies vis-à-vis the internet in the country. This cannot be divorced from the larger questions related to the threats to freedom of expression from both the state and various societal actors today.

This article by Geeta Seshu was published in the Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLVII No. 24, June 2012.

An annulment motion against the Information Technology (Inter-­mediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 moved by Member of Parliament (MP) ­P ­Rajeev of the Communist Party of ­India (Marxist) in the Rajya Sabha, was the first serious attempt by internet freedom activists to get the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 discussed and reviewed by the country’s lawmakers.

Not unexpectedly, the motion, specifically against the rules governing intermediaries – clause (zg) of subsection (2) of Section 87 read with subsection (2) of Section 79 of the >IT Act, 2000 – was not carried. However, the discussion that preceded it at least demonstrated the concerns of parliamentarians about what internet freedom activists have termed the “draconian” provisions of the IT Act.

It is about time, really, that parliamentarians sit down to review what they very quickly acquiesced to in December 2009. It is also about time that the ­debate over the provisions of the IT Act be conducted in the public domain, ­instead of in closed-door meetings with expert groups and committees comprising a narrow set of stakeholders ­favoured by the government or its ­various wings.

The discussion in the Rajya Sabha largely centred around the vague and sweeping terminology of the range of content that anyone could take objection to. P Rajeev said that while he supported the regulation of the internet, he was not in favour of its control. The rules were ultra vires the IT Act, he said. ­Echoing his concern, leader of the opposition Arun Jaitley of the Bharatiya Janata Party, D Raja of the Communist Party of India and N K Singh of the Janata Dal (United) – to name just a few – also said that the internet was different from other media and censoring it was untenable.

Finally, union minister for information technology, Kapil Sibal, was forced to give an assurance to the house that he would call a meeting of MPs, industry and all stakeholders and implement whatever consensus emerges after a discussion on the speci­fic words members had objections to.

There was no mention from the minister on a host of other problem areas in the rules as they are currently framed, including the very sweeping definition of an “intermediary” itself (any entity which on behalf of another receives, stores or transmits any electronic record – which means internet service provi­ders, web hosting providers, search ­engines, online payment sites, cyber­cafes and bloggers too). No mention ­either of the rules for intermediaries to takedown notices within 36 hours of ­receiving a complaint, irrespective of whether these are fair and reasonable. No ­mention of whether the rules need to provide procedures for hearing and adjudicating complaints before any ­content is taken down.

The IT Guidelines

In several ways, the rules have gone way beyond what was laid down in the IT Act, but they also add considerably to the original reasonable restrictions laid down under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India. Some of the terms that can invite objections under the guidelines are:

(a) Belongs to another person and to which the user does not have any right to;  (b) grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophiliac, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever; (c) harm ­minors in any way; (d) infringes any patent, trademark, copyright or other proprietary rights; (e) violates any law for the time being in force; (f) deceives or misleads the addressee about the origin of such messages or communicates any information which is grossly offensive or menacing in nature; (g) impersonate another person; (h) contains software ­viruses or any other computer code, files or programmes designed to interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of any computer resource; (i) threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation.

With this wide-ranging and entirely arbitrary set of potential violations, the possibility of misuse is also immense. In its comments submitted in response to the draft rules, Privacy India and the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) pointed out that Sections 79(1) and (2) of the amended IT Act itself did provide for exemptions for third party liabilities of intermediaries, something that the rules have now virtually set aside.[1]

Other comments submitted by these organisations about security and privacy of cybercafe users deal with minors and with the general architecture of cybercafes. In the first instance, the organisations expressed concern that undue restrictions on the use of the ­internet by minors (photo identity cards, accompanied by adults, etc) would hamper their access to the internet and would actually discourage poorer children from using the internet.

In the second instance, the detailed restrictions on the layout of the cyber­cafés – the height of cabins and the ­directions of the screens, etc, would, they felt, be intrusive and violate the ­privacy of internet users in cybercafes. Besides, vulnerable sections like sexual minorities or HIV positive patients may even be open to identity theft, they feared.

The discussion on the rules unfortunately did not come close to addressing these fears. While the lawmakers gene­rally accepted the importance of regulation of the internet and electronic communication, there is still very little clarity on exactly how this must be done, the extent to which regulation must take place and the agency that will be entrusted with this task.

The IT Act, 2000 was first passed in an era when the country was transitioning to an electronic age. E-commerce was uppermost in the minds of policymakers, their eyes firmly fixed on the new economy. But soon enough, it was clear that techno­logy was developing rapidly and an ­expert committee was consti­tuted to ­revise the act and suggest amendments that would incorporate technological changes.

Lack of Accountability

In the wake of the 26 November 2008 ­attack in Mumbai, national security and intelligence were powerful emotional catchwords and few questioned some of the sweeping provisions laid down by the rules under the IT Act. While the annulment motion focuses on the pernicious nature of the guidelines for intermediaries, this is only one amongst a ­series of rules that seek to change the very manner in which Indians can ­access and use the internet. Other rules relate to ­decrypting, monitoring and blocking of communication, data security and privacy (Section 69: inter­ception, monitoring and decryption of information, Section 69 A: blocking, Section 69 B: monitoring of traffic data or information) and of course, the complete ­absence of checks and balances for the powers given to authorities like Com­puter Emergency Response Team ­India (CERT-In).

In fact, there has been little or no ­review of the responsibility vested in an agency like CERT-In, which describes itself as the nodal agency to oversee the security of the nation. Conflating secu­rity concerns with content that may be ­objectionable to some is one thing but also providing this agency with the powers to block sites without even the crea­tors of these sites getting to know about it is another.

Most of our attention today is on the censorship rampant on the internet in India. Most recently, there have been several instances of internet sites being blocked and takedown notices sent to bloggers. In the last few months, we have had the arbitrary blocking of the website cartoonsagainstcorruption.com which was run by Kanpur-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, the arrest of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mohapatra and the controversial move last year by the Indian government to get internet service providers to remove so-called objectionable content on Facebook, Orkut and Youtube, apart from other sites. A complaint against these sites by journalist Vinay Rai followed soon after, though it strangely did not invoke provisions of the IT Act, preferring to cite alleged violations under the Indian Penal Code.

Trivedi did not even know that his site was blocked till some friends called him to tell him that they could not access his site. After an exchange of emails with his webhost, the portal “Big Rock”, he was informed that the site was sus­pended because it contained cartoons that showed disrespect to national emblems. A complaint had been received by ­Mumbai’s cybercrime cell by a Mumbai-based advocate, R P Pandey. The Kanpur resident also learnt later from news­paper reports that another case, this time under charges of sedition, were lodged against him in Beed district of Maharashtra.

While this method of embroiling someone in cases in far-flung geographical areas is not new (the complaint by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management against New Delhi-based Caravan magazine in Silchar, Assam is a good case in point), Trivedi quickly moved the content on his site onto ­another blogging platform, also got ­together friends and supporters to launch “Saveyourvoice”, an online and offline campaign, with a cheeky celebration of All Fool’s Day on 1 April 2012 with a greeting to the minister Kapil Sibal “for his  foolish attempts to try censoring ­internet” and another campaign – “Freedom in a cage” – at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, in April 2012.

Other internet freedom activists have got together to secure information on censorship. Last year, a right-to-information (RTI) application by the CIS revealed that 11 websites were blocked on orders from the department of ­information techno­logy. A writ petition against the IT Act has been filed in the Kerala High Court and the Software Freedom Law Centre, which was instrumental in campaigning for the annulment motion in the Rajya Sabha, has launched an online petition against the IT Act rules that refers to government authority to censor facebook posts, ­monitor emails and skype conversations, access private information and mine sensitive personal data.[2]

Governments the world over are exercised about the need to impose restrictions on online freedom and a good indication is the bi-annual Google Transparency Report that monitors the number and categories of requests sent by different governments to take down content. In the last report for the period January to June 2011, the report recor­ded requests to remove 358 items and 68 content removal requests, 58% of which were fully or partially complied with. In addition, there were government requests to remove Youtube videos that were protests against local leaders or used offensive language against religious leaders, besides 236 communities and profiles from Orkut which were ­critical of a local politician.

Interestingly, while content removal requests for the Orkut profiles remained as Google maintained it did not fit its own community standards or local law, Google chose to “locally” restrict the videos that may incite enmity between communities. With minor variations, this is a stance adopted by other online companies, like Facebook and Twitter, with the latter coming out with a policy earlier this year that it would remove content that appeared to violate local laws.

In the struggle to keep the internet free and protect communication from surveillance and blocking by governments, it would be naive to expect ­commercially-driven internet companies to put up much of a stand. Most of these stakeholders have agreed with lawmakers that the internet does need regulation. On their part, the Indian government, which has flexed its desire to regulate the internet, has also been sensitive to criticism of its role in censo­ring online freedom. Other stakeholders – the vast community of users of the internet, bloggers, website hosts, creators and producers of online videos, file-sharers, software developers, etc, are only engaged in a race to protect their content and shift it to more amenable sites every time they run into trouble.

Threats to Freedom of Expression

However, it must be noted that the censorship of online media is but a reflection of the curbs on freedom of expression in general. The attacks on freedom of expression in “offline” media, the attacks on journalists and the deaths of eight journalists since 2010,[3] the alarming regularity with which we are witnessing a ban on books and cinema, art or theatre, the increasing intole­rance of dissenting or differing opinions in society, the abject fear of free and ­independent debate and discussion and the role of the government in actively furthering this intolerance are suggestive of a dangerous trend.

Almost all these instances are marked by the clear absence of any due pro­cedure in addressing the content that becomes objectionable to someone or some sections of society, instead arbitrarily and speedily removing this content from the public domain. Whether it is the withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry’s book Such a Long Journey, a prescri­bed textbook by Bombay University, midway through the academic year, or that of recent issue of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbook on the Constitution of India, institutional redressal mechanisms were simply not given a chance.

The woeful absence of similar redressal mechanisms for so-called objectionable content under the rules of the amended IT Act only exacerbates this situation further.


[3].The Free Speech Hub, which has been tracking violations of freedom of expression as part of a project from the media-watch site, The Hoot (www.thehoot.org), has this list: Hemchandra Pandey (July 2010), Bimala Prasad Talukdar (September 2010), Sushil Pathak (December 2010), Umesh Rajput (January 2011), J Dey (June 2011), Ramesh Singhla (October 2011), Chandrioka (February 2012) and Rajesh Mishra (March 2012).