Clumsy. Shoddy. Badly managed. It was meant to rein in the rumour-mongering, hate mail and objectionable visuals that fuelled communal tensions in different parts of the country—and contributed to the mass movement from some cities to the Northeast. But the government’s knee-jerk action of directing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block 310 internet entities has stirred up a right royal storm. Not only has it got India’s internet community up in arms against censorship, it’s perpetuated the feeling that the state is policing in the guise of ensuring national security.
Given the events of the past few weeks—fuelled by threatening SMSes and morphed inflammatory pictures on some websites—the government was expected to act. But going by how it’s blocked a number of websites and web pages, blog postings, images and 20 Twitter accounts—and limited the daily number of SMS messages per individual to five—the government has not increased confidence in the state’s ability to police online content. While the DoT issued the notices, government sources said the lists were given by intelligence agencies to the ministry of home affairs, which asked the DoT to comply. “To stretch it to a point where everything becomes a hate mail or objectionable is absurd,” says an UPA politician, clearly embarrassed.
The blocked list includes over 100 Facebook pages and over 80 YouTube videos. Most of the content relates to communal issues—but there are many anomalies. For instance, many web pages are from articles and reports in the mainstream media: Tehelka, Times of India, Firstpost, Al Jazeera, a Times Now report, a Telegraph (UK) picture gallery, and an (Australian) ABC report. Ironically, the two Pakistani webpages blocked actually debunk the fake images being misused to help spread hatred and incitement. Among the blocked Twitter accounts are those of some journalists who are often critical of the government’s policies and actions. It was not very effective either—in some cases it was possible to find other ways to access the webpages.
India has over 16 million Twitter accounts and close to 50 million Facebook users. Expectedly, there was a strong reaction to the move. “For the last three years, since the amendments to the IT Act, the government never had legitimate reasons to put a check on free speech. The current events have provided it with a ground to do that,” says Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bangalore-based research organisation, Centre for Internet and Society. By the evening of Thursday, August 23, the reaction to the government action was so viral that a number of actions were reversed. The government denied blocking the Twitter accounts and the SMS limit was raised from five to 20. Some Twitterati figuring in the list confirmed to Outlook that their accounts were active. Meanwhile, Twitter inc. informed the government it wouldn’t be able to immediately comply with the gag order.
Internet censorship has been a raging debate in India as the government has openly shown its intent to control this freewheeling media, which has emerged as an effective tool for mass mobilisation and influence. Last year, the government blocked 11 websites and search results and made over 1,400 requests to Google for removal or blocking of content. While the government’s actions may be within the rules—under Article 19 (2) of the constitution, the government is allowed to put “reasonable restrictions” on content and the IT Act also enables it to take down any “objectionable” content—experts say it has not followed the correct process.
Asking ISPs to block webpages should be the last resort, they argue, ideally the government should have worked with well-known service providers to shut down the offending pages. “Blocking websites would not help much as most servers are across borders. Taking a legal course can also become cumbersome as that involves countries and clearance from both ends,” says M. Sridhar, an expert in cyber law with the NALSAR university of law, Hyderabad.
On the face of it, the government is careful about any talk on ‘policing the internet’. Says minister of communications and IT, Sachin Pilot, “I do not believe in any form of censorship of the internet. It is only when the internet is being used for rumour-mongering that the government has to step in.” He adds that even companies who are not registered entities here have to be sensitive to the “Indian realities”.
Clearly, the problem is in the clueless way in which the government went about its work. Internet activists feel that the government has used the situation to further its agenda of controlling internet content. As Nikhil Pahwa, blogger and editor, Medianama, sums up, “The bigger picture is that this is progressively getting worse and every opportunity is being used to increase blocking of online content.”
By Arindam Mukherjee with Chandrani Banerjee