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Virtual democracy?

Should India celebrate the fact that we have only 11 officially banned websites compared to 12,000 in Pakistan, asks Ketan Tanna. Or worry about the increasing desire of the government to control Net freedom and push through the new IT notification that proposes to ban online content that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order”?

In the last week of January 2011, a group of country analysts working on ‘Freedom on the Net-2011’, a report on Internet and digital freedom published by USA-based Freedom House, gathered at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Among those present at the meetings were analysts from Pakistan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand. I was the analyst for India. As it happened, seated next to me was the Pakistani analyst who had done considerable work in the field of Internet freedom. Opposite me was the analyst for China.

We had gathered to review a ratings exercise on how each country performed on various parameters of Internet freedom that had been compiled as part of a larger report on the state of Net freedom for various Asian countries. Each country analyst had to give a country briefing and arrive at a country score in conjunction with Freedom House officials and invited experts.

 The Pakistani analyst was clearly upset at the deteriorating level of Internet freedom in his country. He said that in the past three to four years -- under the rule of then President Parvez Musharraf and now under President Asif Ali Zardari -- the authorities had adopted various measures to control cyberspace and the sharing of information online. He pointed out that in recent years they had -- via government order or court decisions -- blocked access several times to various Web 2.0 applications such as the video-sharing website YouTube, the photo-sharing application Flickr, and the social networking tool Facebook.

For an Indian, anything that happens in Pakistan is of great interest and I was closely following each word of my Pakistani colleague. Let me call him Junaid, as I’m not allowed to reveal his identity. Junaid started recounting the abysmal level of Internet freedom in his country and the fear of intimidation and surveillance in general. That the situation was bad became evident when he declined to be identified publicly as the author of his report for fear of repercussions.

Should I take comfort in the fact that as an Indian not only did I criticise the Indian government and various authorities for trying to slowly encroach upon our Internet freedom, I also downgraded the score of Internet freedom in India by two points from the previous pilot exercise held in 2009-10? I was only too happy to identify myself as the Indian analyst, while the analysts for the reports on Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe requested anonymity when the final report was published in April 2011.

The situation worldwide as far as freedom on the Net goes does not look very good. While Estonia, the US and Germany are the top three free countries on the Net, the Freedom House report found that threats to Internet freedom are growing and have become more diverse globally. And that cyber attacks, politically motivated censorship, and government control over Internet infrastructure are among the diverse and growing threats to Internet freedom.

Key findings of ‘Freedom on the Net-2011’ include:

  • Explosion in social media has met with censorship: In response to the growing popularity of Internet-based applications like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, many governments have started targeting the new platforms as part of their censorship strategies. In 12 of the 37 countries examined, the authorities consistently or temporarily imposed total bans on these services or their equivalents.
  • Bloggers and ordinary users face arrest: Bloggers, online journalists, human rights activists as well as ordinary people increasingly face arrest and imprisonment for their online writings. In 23 of the 37 countries, including several democratic states (and India), at least one blogger or Internet user was detained because of online communications.
  • Cyber attacks against regime critics are intensifying: Governments and their sympathisers are increasingly using technical attacks to disrupt activists’ online networks, eavesdrop on their communications, and cripple their websites. Such attacks were reported in at least 12 of the 37 countries covered.
  • Politically motivated censorship and content manipulation is growing: A total of 15 of the 37 countries examined were found to engage in substantial online blocking of politically relevant content. In these countries, website blocks are not sporadic but rather the result of an apparent national policy to restrict users’ access to information, including the websites of independent news outlets and human rights groups.
  • Governments exploit centralised Internet infrastructure to limit access: Centralised government control over a country’s connection to international Internet traffic poses a significant threat to free online expression, particularly in times of political turmoil. In 12 of the 37 countries examined, the authorities used their control over infrastructure to limit widespread access to politically and socially controversial content, and in extreme cases cut off access to the Internet entirely.

Where do India and South Asia figure in this frayed and deteriorating scenario? Unfortunately, we did not have analysts from Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, so this article confines itself to Pakistan and India. In terms of world rankings on Internet freedom, India ranks 14th and Pakistan 26th. Here is the comparative chart:

That India is below Nigeria and above Malaysia is not too flattering if we look at the global rankings. Pakistan has reason to slide down to 26th position with even Kazakhstan above it.

The Pakistani authorities have blocked access to various sites, notably Facebook, due to their “blasphemous” content. Politically motivated censorship and blanket bans have affected a large number of users. There have been several other instances of the blocking of websites. According to the Pakistani analyst, websites that are comprehensively blocked have content which is perceived as ‘anti-military’, ‘blasphemous’, or ‘anti-state’, while the most systematically censored is information disseminated by Balochi and Sindhi political dissidents. For example, the website of the Washington-based World Sindhi Institute and the website Lal-Masjid are blocked. In November 2010, the authorities blocked The Baloch Hal, the first English language news website focused on Baluchistan, approximately one year after its launch. The Pakistani authorities cited Section 99 of the penal code, which allows the government to restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest, to justify their blocking. According to a document submitted to the Lahore High Court during a court hearing, by September 2010 “more than 12,000 blasphemous and anti-state/social websites have been blocked from access”.

Websites banned by the Government of India

In April 2011, an RTI activist from The Centre for Internet and Society managed to get a list of ‘officially banned’ websites in India. The Department of Information Technology has stated that the list includes:

Should Indians be thrilled that we have only 11 officially banned websites, compared to 12,000 in Pakistan? Should we be thrilled that in Asia we are second in the list of countries that are comparatively free, with South Korea ahead of us? Given below is the list of Asian countries surveyed by ‘Freedom on the Net-2011’.

Asian countries surveyed

Before we begin to feel good about ourselves compared to other Asian countries, Indians need to remember that the level of freedom on the Net for India is dropping. In the report entitled ‘Freedom on the Net-2009’, India had a score of 34 (partly free). In 2011, it is 36. The bright side is that though India’s Internet penetration rate of less than 10% is low by global standards, access has expanded rapidly in urban areas, generating tens of millions of new users in recent years. In the past, instances of the central government seeking to control communication technologies were relatively rare. However, following the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and with expanding Maoist insurgency, the need for and the desire and ability of the Indian government to control Net communications has grown.

In 2008, Parliament passed amendments to the Information Technology Act (ITA) which came into effect in 2009 and expanded the government’s monitoring capabilities. Pressure has also increased on private intermediaries to remove certain information. Though most requests have targeted comments that might incite communal violence, some observers have voiced concern over certain removals being unnecessary. The fairness of bidding processes surrounding the allocation of spectrum also came into question in 2010 with the exposure of a major corruption scandal involving the licensing of second-generation (2G) mobile phone services.

As if the amended Information Technology Act were not enough, in April 2011 the Department of Information Technology, Government of India, issued the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011. It said that content that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order” would be entitled to a ban. Intermediaries which could include YouTube or Facebook or companies hosting websites would have to respond to demands to take down offensive content within 36 hours. The rules have not provided any way out for content producers to defend their work or appeal against a decision to take content down. To be fair, the new rules have also removed liability from Internet intermediaries as long as they are not active participants in creating content that is later deemed offensive.

The new rules also stipulate that cyber cafe owners would be required to “tell users” not to surf websites that contain “pornographic or obscene material”. According to the rules notified on April 11, all cyber cafes in the country will have to register with an “agency as notified” by the government. While some of the guidelines deal with the security threat posed by “anonymous Internet users”, most aim to make sure that people don’t use cyber cafes to access pornographic material. The new rules make it mandatory for users to carry identity cards. Cyber cafe owners have been asked to give user logs to the “registration agency” every month as well as keep these records along with the log of websites accessed at the cyber cafe safe for one year.

When my Pakistani colleague started recounting instances of how bloggers were frequently intimidated and how Internet freedom was under threat in his country, I thanked God that India has a spirited civil society which will not easily be bulldozed into submission by the government with respect to Internet freedom. But with each passing day, Indians are being squeezed into a corner. The desire and the ability of the Indian government to control our freedom on the Net is increasing, and we need to be vigilant about it. Otherwise India will soon be placed somewhere near Pakistan or, worse, above Saudi Arabia and Iran in the world rankings on Internet freedom.

(Ketan Tanna is Editor, Free Press Journal Online, and Features Editor, Free Press Journal)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011