Centre for Internet & Society

Even as the controversy over Kapil Sibal's attempt to get internet giants such as Google and Facebook to prescreen user-generated content to weed out 'offensive' material rages, a yet-to-be-published study by Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society reveals that rules already in place can have "chilling effects on free expression on the internet".

The study set out to examine if the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011, notified in April 2011, could create a gagging effect on websites that provide a platform for user-generated content in the form of opinion and comments. Websites such as Facebook, Yahoo, YouTube and Twitter fall under this category. The study was commissioned by the Centre for Internet and Society, which was invited to comment on the department of information technology when it framed the seminal Information Technology Act 2000.

The study author set out to test the process of 'takedown' (requesting an internet entity to remove material that can be interpreted as 'hateful', 'disparaging', 'defamatory', etc) by notifying seven separate internet entities of content linked to their websites or hosted by them that could, in very loose terms, be deemed offensive. The entities are not named in the study.

This first-of-a-kind experiment included actions such as sending search engines a takedown notice alerting it to results on searching the keywords 'online gambling' and alerting a news website about comments on a news story related to the Telangana dispute.

In six of the seven cases, the intermediaries and hosts - technical terms for websites that host content - acted promptly to not only remove the 'offensive' content without due processes of investigation but in some cases went beyond their brief to remove all content connected with the one mentioned in the takedown notice.

For instance, a news website that was sent a takedown notice about a well-argued and non-abusive comment to an article on the Telangana issue took down not just that comment, but all 15 comments published below the article In the case of the results of a search for 'online gambling', despite the fact that intermediaries are exempted from being implicated in such cases, one search engine notified took down not just the three links mentioned in the notice but another 25 sub-domains as well, "presumably to avoid legal risk and to err on the side of caution," the CIS report says.

"Our criticism is of the policy and not of the websites and Internet entities that are forced to err on the side of caution when faced by such notices," says Sunil Abraham, executive director, Centre for Internet and Society. "We are aware that they do not always have the legal and manpower resources necessary to monitor the enormous volumes of content they host." These companies often overstep their brief in order to avoid legal hassles resulting from what Abraham calls "unconstitutional limits on free speech".

The original story was published by the Times of India on 9 December 2011. Sunil Abraham was quoted in it. Read the story on Times of India here