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Invisible Censorship – How India Censors Without Being Seen: Pranesh Prakash

January 11, 2012

Guest post by PRANESH PRAKASH

The Indian government wants to censor the Internet without being seen to be censoring the Internet. This article by Pranesh Prakash shows how the government has been able to achieve this through the Information Technology Act and the Intermediary Guidelines Rules it passed in April 2011. It now wants methods of censorship that leave even fewer traces, which is why Mr. Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology talks of Internet ‘self-regulation’, and has brought about an amendment of the Copyright Act that requires instant removal of content.

Power of the Internet and Freedom of Expression
The Internet, as anyone who has ever experienced the wonder of going online would know, is a very different communications platform from any that has existed before. It is the one medium where anybody can directly share their thoughts with billions of other people in an instant. People who would never have any chance of being published in a newspaper now have the opportunity to have a blog and provide their thoughts to the world. This also means that thoughts that many newspapers would decide not to publish can be published online since the Web does not, and more importantly cannot, have any editors to filter content. For many dictatorships, the right of people to freely express their thoughts is something that must be heavily regulated. Unfortunately, we are now faced with the situation where some democratic countries are also trying to do so by censoring the Internet.

Intermediary Guidelines Rules
In India, the new ‘Intermediary Guidelines‘ Rules and the Cyber Cafe Rules that have been in effect since April 2011 give not only the government, but all citizens of India, great powers to censor the Internet. These rules, which were made by the Department of Information Technology and not by the Parliament, require that all intermediaries remove content that is ‘disparaging’, ‘relating to… gambling’, ‘harm minors in any way’, to which the user ‘does not have rights’. When was the last time you checked wither you had ‘rights’ to a joke before forwarding it? Did you share a Twitter message containing the term “#IdiotKapilSibal”, as thousands of people did a few days ago? Well, that is ‘disparaging’, and Twitter is required by the new law to block all such content. The government of Sikkim can run advertisements for its PlayWin lottery in newspapers, but under the new law it cannot do so online. As you can see, through these ridiculous examples, the Intermediary Guidelines are very badly thought-out and their drafting is even worse. Worst of all, they are unconstitutional, as they put limits on freedom of speech that contravene Article 19(1)(a) and 19(2) of the Constitution, and do so in a manner that lacks any semblance of due process and fairness.

Excessive Censoring by Internet Companies
We, at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, decided to test the censorship powers of the new rules by sending frivolous complaints to a number of intermediaries. Six out of seven intermediaries removed content, including search results listings, on the basis of the most ridiculous complaints. The people whose content was removed were not told, nor was the general public informed that the content was removed. If we hadn’t kept track, it would be as though that content never existed. Such censorship existed during Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union. Not even during the Emergency has such censorship ever existed in India. Yet, not only was what the Internet companies did legal under the Intermediary Guideline Rules, but if they had not, they could have been punished for content put up by someone else. That is like punishing the post office for the harmful letters that people may send over post.

Government Has Powers to Censor and Already Censors
Currently, the government can either block content by using section 69A of the Information Technology Act (which can be revealed using RTI), or it has to send requests to the Internet companies to get content removed. Google has released statistics of government request for content removal as part of its Transparency Report. While Mr. Sibal uses the examples of communally sensitive material as a reason to force censorship of the Internet, out of the 358 items requested to be removed from January 2011 to June 2011 from Google service by the Indian government (including state governments), only 8 were for hate speech and only 1 was for national security. Instead, 255 items (71 per cent of all requests) were asked to be removed for ‘government criticism’. Google, despite the government in India not having the powers to ban government criticism due to the Constitution, complied in 51 per cent of all requests. That means they removed many instances of government criticism as well.

‘Self-Regulation’: Undetectable Censorship
Mr. Sibal’s more recent efforts at forcing major Internet companies such as Indiatimes, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, to ‘self-regulate’ reveals a desire to gain ever greater powers to bypass the IT Act when censoring Internet content that is ‘objectionable’ (to the government). Mr. Sibal also wants to avoid embarrassing statistics such as that revealed by Google’s Transparency Report. He wants Internet companies to ‘self-regulate’ user-uploaded content, so that the government would never have to send these requests for removal in the first place, nor block sites officially using the IT Act. If the government was indeed sincere about its motives, it would not be talking about ‘transparency’ and ‘dialogue’ only after it was exposed in the press that the Department of Information Technology was holding secret talks with Internet companies. Given the clandestine manner in which it sought to bring about these new censorship measures, the motives of the government are suspect. Yet, both Mr. Sibal and Mr. Sachin Pilot have been insisting that the government has no plans of Internet censorship, and Mr. Pilot has made that statement officially in the Lok Sabha. This, thus seems to be an instance of censoring without censorship.

Backdoor Censorship through Copyright Act
Further, since the government cannot bring about censorship laws in a straightforward manner, they are trying to do so surreptitiously, through the back door. Mr. Sibal’s latest proposed amendment to the Copyright Act, which is before the Rajya Sabha right now, has a provision called section 52(1)(c) by which anyone can send a notice complaining about infringement of his copyright. The Internet company will have to remove the content immediately without question, even if the notice is false or malicious. The sender of false or malicious notices is not penalized. But the Internet company will be penalized if it doesn’t remove the content that has been complained about. The complaint need not even be shown to be true before the content is removed. Indeed, anyone can complain about any content, without even having to show that they own the rights to that content. The government seems to be keen to have the power to remove content from the Internet without following any ‘due process’ or fair procedure. Indeed, it not only wants to give itself this power, but it is keen on giving all individuals this power.

It’s ultimate effect will be the death of the Internet as we know it. Bid adieu to it while there is still time.

(Pranesh Prakash is with the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, which first published this article.)

Previously in Kafila on internet censorship:

See also:

36 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2012 2:10 AM

    A major censorship threat in India comes not just from the government, but from religious organizations. Recently, Dar-Ul-Uloom Deoband had started renewing its battle cries against Salman Rushdie, by asking the government to deny him entry into India to attend the Jaipur literary festival. One of his books is already banned in India, for frivolous reasons put forth by the same organization. I see this ability of religious organizations of various persuasions (the other example is the Hindu extremist groups like MNS and Shiv sena, and there were even some cries by Christian churches against Dan Brown) to arm-twist the government into censoring creativity, and the inability of the government to protect the right of free speech of those (like Rushdie) attacked by these organizations to be as big (if not bigger) a threat for free speech as any government censorship.

    • Ram Sharma permalink
      January 11, 2012 11:42 PM

      Well said. Unfortunately, censorship or freedom of speech are both advocated and opposed from a biased perspective. Same people who speak for freedom of expression try to suppress expression by others, sometimes blatantly and sometime quietly. One often notices that the very people who condemn MNS or Shiv Sena have no problem with Dar –Ul-Uloom for similar acts and vice versa. No posting in Kafila ever supported the freedom of speech of an ex-VC of Ul-Uloom and opposed his firing, even though his opinion was very personal, not being imposed on anyone in the Islamic Institution he was going to lead. He had not spoken anything against Islam. It is no surprise that the communal opposition to Salman Rashdee’s Visa to visit India, although having no merit, finds no mention in Kafila except for your note. One must support the freedom speech even of an enemy, and not eliminate by using the pretext of ‘ moderation’. But, ‘ hamko unse hai wafa ki ummeed, jo nahin jantey wafa kya hai’.

      • January 12, 2012 2:59 PM

        Well, there is a post condemning Deoband now, so I guess you just needed to give the admin enough time :D

  2. January 11, 2012 5:28 AM

    Add the 200 sms per day cap to your list! In the name of telemarketers, the GoI has put an invisible valve on the best medium for mass messaging!

    • January 11, 2012 11:31 AM

      Actually, 200 is not that bad. Suppose that each person just sends SMS to 2 unique people: (because of clash in lists etc.) even then, you reach a million people in just 20 rounds! I am no fan of censorship, but I think 200 per day is a reasonable daily cap on number of messages allowed, in order to combat spamming. However, there should be the option that people can send more messages but at a significantly higher cost.

    • January 11, 2012 2:52 PM

      No thanks, that is one thing that I am quite happy for. The last thing I need is some asshole pimping his unwanted products and services at me, so don’t try to garb spam as some noble free speech issue.
      The ‘best medium for mass messaging’ is the radio. You don’t need to even be capable of reading, nor exclusively possess a radio to use it. A group of illiterate villagers can buy a transistor radio that runs on batteries and get news updates about the world. Under existing Indian law, private radio stations are not allowed to broadcast news programs or analysis – for fear that such information would easily reach the wider Indian audience who have not a ghost of a chance of getting onto the Internet or reading a newspaper.
      Which is why we’re subjected to the inane drivel on FM radio stations – more bread and circuses to keep everyone quiet and indifferent.

    • Ankit permalink
      January 11, 2012 5:14 PM

      Not a very popular addition.
      This addition of yours if considered would weaken the motive of this post !

  3. January 11, 2012 11:55 AM

    Unless Priminister & entire cabit is thrown out of their chair by constituted mean & present cogress regim is defited by eletoral process, you have to bear the burnt for selecting these people. It is public who is responsible for this situation. Let us wait for oportunity.

  4. udayanchandra permalink
    January 11, 2012 12:46 PM

    I am sure people commenting on this article too shall be followed. I have personally experienced difficulty in posting comments on facebook when the discussion is about ‘policy issues’ involving the GOI. After a few posts, the page gets unable to accept further posts.

    • January 11, 2012 5:32 PM

      I doubt that: I still have faith our government won’t try to maliciously sabotage people like this.

      In any case, you should “https” rather than http to log into websites where you think you have important personal data.

  5. Ankit permalink
    January 11, 2012 5:19 PM

    Look, the virus has started to work on its cause.
    This government for the next one, may be the one after 5 years or 10, is going to use this with additions to this.

    This is one thing that you will not be able to avoid in any ways. Happen what may.
    As they say in hindi “Khoon lag gaya hai mooh mein”

  6. junkie permalink
    January 13, 2012 11:25 AM

    Why are MPs, companies, jittery private educational outfits, hospitals interested in having more internet censorship laws ? Because they all need to project a good image. They will even go to Silchar if needed. The government has already written the laws for allowing them to have the upper hand. What is common between Digvijay Singh, Shashi Tharoor, GIIS K-12 Education Pvt Ltd, Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) ? All have filed cases against Google or social media. Expect to see social media and internet to be cleaned up very soon.

    • January 16, 2012 8:08 AM

      Shashi Tharoor’s legal notice last year was against “The Sunday Indian” which self-styles as “India’s Greatest News Magazine” and is published online, it is not exactly a “social media” website but I agree that this media is also on the internet ( At http://thesundayindian.com/ ). But the amazing thing about the internet age is that… you can also read Tharoor’s detailed statement using the same internet ! ( http://indiawires.com/3849/network-buzz/i-have-no-swiss-account-legal-or-illegal-says-shashi-tharoor/ ) . For this reason, leave the interent alone !

      Now interestingly Indian Institute of Planning Management IIPM (Arindam Choudhry) is the editor of the Sunday Indian magazine. He along with his institute IIPM sued Google, Caravan magazine and Penguin sometime ago for defamation ( http://www.medianama.com/2011/06/223-iipm-sues-the-caravan-google-penguin-it-rules-social-media-test/ ) ! Only the internet tells you about this !

      If that was not enough… Shashi Tharoor is also linked to Global Indian International School GIIS Dubai/Malaysia/Singapore which sued Google for not banning three school blogs ( http://www.techgoss.com/Story/406S11-CERT-refused-to-ban-3-school-blogs.aspx ) !

      Isn’t that amazing. The internet alows you as an ordinary person to discover all these linkups, search old news and new developments and then make up your own opinion of the day. If each ordinary citizen is responsible for their own opinions every day, we don’t need to keep editing and controlling the internet media whenever somebody complains. I hope we can have a big debate on this.

  7. Yes permalink
    January 17, 2012 4:03 PM

    Its turning into 1984 around here. You cant stay anonymous on the net anymore.

  8. April 19, 2012 1:30 PM

    what happens if one lodges a copyright complaint against a government website? will they remove their content as well?

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  21. #MakeBlog: Bloggers and the IT Rules – A Blogger’s Perspective – The Internet Democracy Project

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