Policing the Net in mufti

Issues relating to whether the Internet should be governed or managed, and if so, how, are exercising the minds of many across the globe. Those who believe freedom of expression is a fundamental right of individuals are agitated over attempts that are made from time to time by governments to decide what people should read, listen to or watch. Those who argue that the Internet can and does strengthen democracy in communities and countries also realise that control over the World Wide Web by not just governments but by powerful corporate establishments as well can and does throttle its potential to empower the weak and the underprivileged.
Even as the “digital divide” in the world and across nation-states slowly but inexorably narrows (according to one estimate, at least two out of three people on the planet still have not used the Internet), debates on who decides what can and cannot be publicly disseminated tend to swing from one extreme to the other. The point of view of free speech libertarians is that anything and everything should go (stopping short of child pornography), while those at the other end advocate strict control over content on a variety of claims and considerations, from protecting children from purveyors of porn to checking those who allegedly abuse their right to free speech to create social disharmony, including religious intolerance, defame others, disrupt public disorder and/or compromise national security. A balance is urgently called for.
As these debates rage, the Indian government’s reaction has been rather ham-handed, clumsy and peculiar, if not downright regressive. The department of information technology has chosen to define the word “intermediary” in a ludicrous manner to include telecom service providers, network service providers, Internet service providers, Web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites, auction sites and cyber cafes. And the new rules have defined as “unlawful” all content considered “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling…” The government expects the intermediaries, instead of the judiciary, to identify such content and remove it on their own within 36 hours, saddling Internet service providers with an adjudicating function for which they are neither equipped, nor capable.
These rules were sought to be annulled in the Rajya Sabha by CPI(M) member of Parliament P. Rajeev on May 18, a move which was supported by the Leader of the Opposition and BJP leader, Arun Jaitley. Faced with a unified Opposition, Union minister for communications and information technology Kapil Sibal said: “My assurance to the House is that I will request the MPs to write letters to me objecting to any specific words (in the rules). I will then call a meeting of the members and the industry and all stakeholders. We will have a discussion and whatever consensus emerges, we will implement it.”
The story does not end here. Even as the discussion on the IT intermediary rules was taking place in the country, in October 2011, the Indian government quietly and without any public discussion took a position in the UN General Assembly that effectively implies greater government control over the Internet. Of course, New Delhi’s position was cleverly couched in language that makes it appear as if government control over the Internet was not being advocated or suggested. And, where it is, it is only to challenge the current global structure that controls the functioning of the Internet which is heavily biased in favour of the United States.
These are two different issues that need to be separated.
American and Western domination over key resources, notably root zone server systems and the management of names and addresses through ICANN (Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers), is a matter of grave concern for all informed observers of the Internet and not just activists, especially those in developing countries. While the not-for-profit ICANN claims that it is an independent, non-governmental global body accountable to different sets of stakeholders, including civil society, these claims are taken with more than a pinch of salt given its relationship with the US federal government in particular and the American establishment in general.
There are already two UN bodies, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), that are engaged in examining various issues relating to the functioning of the Internet.
What India suggested in October last year was the establishment of a Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) that would be under the UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) and governed by bureaucrats and politicians representing the governments of 50 countries across the world, including the governments of nations that have a rather questionable track record of freedom of expression, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda and Cuba.
The Indian proposal says the CIRP would strengthen the Internet “as a vehicle for openness, democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, diversity, inclusiveness, creativity, free and unhindered access to information and knowledge, global connectivity, innovation and socio-economic growth” and that any attempt by governments to “take over”, “regulate” or “circumscribe” the Internet would be “antithetical”, not only to the Internet “but also to human welfare”. It adds that India’s commitment to “multi-stakeholderism” is evident from its proposal to have four advisory groups, one each for civil society, the private sector, inter-governmental and international organisations and the technical and academic community.
That sounds fine on paper. But could the medicine prove worse than the disease? Civil society representatives, technical experts and academics in India will have to intensify struggles on at least three fronts. One is to ensure that politicians and bureaucrats do not effectively control the CIRP if and when it is formed. Two, efforts to reduce the domination of Western governments and multinational corporate oligopolies over the Internet will have to continue with renewed vigour. Thirdly, it must be ensured that the Indian government listens to more voices while rewriting the fine print of extant IT guidelines relating to “intermediaries”.
Only then can one hope that the Internet will truly be able to serve the wider interests of the majority of humanity.

The writer is an educator and commentator

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