The draft proposal to amend the Indian IT Act so as to impose restrictions on intermediaries has provoked a huge outcry in the country, especially among its vocal bloggers.
While the proposed rules seek to control the ‘intermediaries' such as telecom networks, web-hosting sites and Internet service providers, search engines, online payment, cyber cafes and auction sites, it is the focus on blogs that has provoked an outburst.
The overemphasis on blogs, indicating the government's anxiety to control them; the ‘vagueness' of the reasons for which the government can block websites; and the utterly regressive move of introducing ‘intermediary due-diligence,' a favourite tool of repressive regimes against bloggers, is upsetting, says Shivam Vij, journalist, Kafila.
“It is interesting that while ‘Blogs' and ‘Blogger' are defined, the words aren't used in the rules per se. In other words, they had blogs in mind while making the rules,” he adds. Certain websites and blogs were blocked in 2006, while selective blocking was prevalent at times of wars and emergencies, say sources.
Besides curtailing the freedom of expression of individual bloggers, the draft holds them responsible for readers' comments and online discussions.
Experts also fear the restrictions now targeted at individual blogs will soon be applied to micro-blogging sites that facilitate online discussions, and the due diligence clause will result in higher power of censorship to the larger player.
For someone like K. Nageshwar, who maintains a blog and a website, indiacurrentaffairs.org that registers over 1 lakh visitors a month, moderating all comments is difficult. “Blogs often carry inflammatory content — some categorical, some critical and some full of hate. We understand as bloggers that we have the responsibility to ensure information is not used to spread the wrong message. Such regulations have to be exercised by bloggers themselves. Draconian measures would deepen discontent among the community.”
The blogging community sees these rules as an outcome of the larger censorship of areas of scrutiny that do not really fit into the Indian cyber space. The issue of Internet freedom is really about the tension between national security and personal liberty, and national security will always prevail under the pretext of economic growth, social stability or military threats, say the bloggers.
“In my mind, it's inevitable that we will soon end up with 200 different slices of the Internet, each one circumscribed by the whims of the censors in the country,” says Gaurva Mishra, a blogger and social media analyst.
“Instead of focusing on ‘bad repressive regimes,' the debate on Internet freedom should focus on “bad practices in open democracies,” including over-aggressive cyber crime, copyright, defamation laws to protect entrenched corporate interests, surveillance of Internet users in the name of national security, censorship of Internet content in the name of safeguarding intellectual property, isolating hate speech or preventing child pornography,” he adds.
Mr. Mishra says that in the aftermath of the Wikileaks controversy, governments are likely to pass regressive cyber-security laws to limit online freedom of expression in both ‘open democracies' and ‘authoritarian regimes.'
Krish Ashok, a Chennai-based blogger, says such censorship shows a certain lack of understanding because it takes quite a bit of technical skill to actually censor the Internet. As one will realise from the recent revolutions in West Asia, it mostly does not work.
“The Internet community will always end up being smarter. India does not control the rest of the web, and people can write blog posts by sending just an email. The lesser fortunate ones will end up facing the ham-handed fist of these new guidelines,” he says.
Scope for misuse
What is needed is more transparency in the system, and this clandestine, surreptitious way of blocking sites won't work, says Mr. Ashok, citing how websites blocked often show error pages. “Anybody can take a print out of a comment posted and complain against a blog to the authorities for it to be blocked. This draft leaves a lot of scope for it to be so misused,” Mr. Vij says.