In the wake of the latest round of internet censorship in India, we are again witnessing some really shabby state of affairs. Indian government had asked several social media sites and internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo!, to “prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online.” Google admitted that 51 per cent of the total requests were partially or fully complied with. In one after the other Google Transparency Reports India has featured in none favourably. While there were five court orders from India ordering them to remove content there were 96 other requests by Indian government agencies for 246 individual items which puts India above other countries requesting for removal of content.
The real problem however begins with the Indian government’s poor understanding of the technical viability of censorship and for randomly and rather ineffectually blocking websites. In a recent attempt to block just 11 WordPress accounts, many major ISPs in India including Tata and Sify ended up blocking the entire WordPress domain. Between 18 and 21 August 2012, the Government of India ordered more than 300 specific URLs blocked. The blocked articles, accounts, groups, and videos were said to contain inflammatory content with fictitious details relating to Assam violence and supposedly promoting the NE exodus. These specific URLs included the domains of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, BlogSpot, WordPress, Google Plus, Wikipedia, Times of India, and other websites.
..And this is in no way a singular event. India has time and again botched up such censorship programs. In 2003, the Department of Technology asked Indian ISPs to block the Yahoo! Group of an illegal, minor separatist group from Meghalaya but difficulties led to all Yahoo! Groups being banned for almost two weeks. In 2006 again major blogs of the day like Geocities and BlogSpot were blocked entirely for over a week.
In May this year, 434 websites were blocked in India by more than one Internet Service Providers. This list was hacked from Reliance servers by the hacker group ANONYMOUS, which claimed that while most of these were blocked as a result of government or court orders, some have been blocked by Reliance on its own. Going down deeper revealed that this enthusiasm to block websites on Reliance’s own behalf had something to do with their on-going legal battles. The websites were related to Satish Seth, a Reliance ADAG executive who had gotten listed as a prosecution witness in the 2G scam.
In another startling turn of events, Aseem Trivedi, a renowned Indian political cartoonist and activist, best known for his anti-corruption campaign Cartoons Against Corruption has learnt that an arrest warrant has been issued in his name. Trivedi is this year’s winner of the prestigious CRNI Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning to be given at the annual convention in Washington, DC on September 15th but the threat of his arrest is imminent. Late last year his website was suspended without any prior notice to him and none of his questions were even entertained. The site was suspended after a complaint to the Mumbai Crime Branch by a Mumbai-based advocate and congress leader, R.P. Pandey stating the cartoons to be “defamatory and derogatory”.
This raises two major concerns. First there is no system in place for redressal of such grievances. A look into new IT Act reveals the Intermediary Guidelines, 2011 which have been put in place for trading your legal liabilities in such cases in exchange for your freedom of expression. For those with a high dose of optimism bias this can be seen as a rather sophisticated replacement to the hired goon squads, a quick and cheap way against anyone threatening the status quo.
Another larger issue is that of stifling the freedom of speech under the guise of security, rumour-mongering or hate speak when all this is just politically motivated. Prohibitive laws have been put in place to keep the media from growing. Bloggers and moderators stand to face libel suits and even criminal prosecution for comments posted even by other users on their websites. Requests to remove profiles and communities that are critical of local politicians and other such constant requests to Google and other social media giants is undermining the freedom of expression of the world’s largest democracy.
Is it time we stopped calling India the world’s largest democracy and start calling it the world’s most populated democracy?