The government’s banned your favourite website? You will never know why
AN OLD Bengali saying about slow official reaction time goes “Sarkarer tero mashay bochor” (“By government reckoning, there are 13 months to a year”). When it came to cyberspace, most governments took 13 years or more to see the potential for political disruption. However, after waking up, government after government has focussed on ways to censor the Web by enacting a succession of draconian laws. This is true not only for China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is true for the USA. And, of course, it’s true for India.
The desire to control content has grown as the Web’s reach has multiplied. Many events in the past few years have made it obvious that cyberspace empowers and transforms political protest in unprecedented ways.
By 2011, Nielsen estimated 30 percent of world population, some 2 billion-plus people, were netizens. By 2016, a staggering 3 billion-plus will be online. The web can be reached by anybody with a phone. It is a platform for individuals to touch the world, via a wide range of social networking sites and tools.
By the early 2000s, most governments had specialised divisions to snoop on web communications. Many enacted laws allowing monitoring without warrants. The music and movie industries started screaming about piracy. Banks became wary of hacks and identity thefts. The first laws were ostensibly to prevent terrorism, cyber-terrorism and crime. They also allowed for easy censorship. Those laws were in themselves draconian. For example, the Indian IT Act of 2000 allows search and seizure of equipment, without warrants, on suspicion.
From 2006, WikiLeaks has made governments increasingly exasperated about the inability to control information flow. It first released videos and documents on Iraq and Afghanistan. Those threw light on multiple incidents of civilian deaths and torture. Then, it released a massive stash of confidential internal mails from US diplomats. This not only embarrassed the US, it embarrassed every other nation mentioned.
The US has tried censorship controls. But very strong protection of Free Speech is embedded in the First Amendment of the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
In January, a huge coalition of US businesses and American netizens successfully blocked the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) Bills in the US Senate. Those bills were ostensibly designed to stop piracy by offshore sites. But they not only enable Website bans, they could force sites offline by deleting domain names.
In late 2010, the Arab Spring made the political power of Web 2.0 apparent. Protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, etc, released real-time video footage and Twitter updates as they fought on the streets. The Beijing Olympics had already seen Tibetans orchestrating protests by the Web. But microblogging and smartphones had become more ubiquitous by 2011. The Iranians also struggled to contain Twitter-coordinated protests after botching their rigging of presidential elections.
In the meantime, the Indian government had also been getting increasingly alarmed by an inability to effectively censor. Since 1999, it has been banning web pages of various kinds. It started with the Kargil War, when Karachi newspaper Dawn was blocked.
Web bans in India are done in an opaque manner. The computer security agency, Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN), which was set up “to enhance the security of India’s Communications and Information Infrastructure”, accepts ban requests from a host of organisations and political parties. It then issues instructions to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ban websites. No reasons are required. There is no apparent process of review or appeal. The list of banned websites is available only because it can be acquired by the back door from ISPs. One infers the government would prefer not to have attention drawn to this conflation of security with censorship.
Service providers are now liable under Indian law. This is like making the postal department liable for hate-mail
Who makes specific ban requests? We don’t know due to the cloak of secrecy surrounding the ban process. What sort of content does the Indian government censor? We have only anecdotal evidence since there is no official list in the public domain. The list includes religious and communal hate-speech by random loonies; it includes allegations of corruption involving netas and babus; it includes an American teenager saying she found an wannabe Indian boyfriend “yucky”; it includes satirical uncomplimentary references to politicians (not all Indian); it includes porn (such as the Savita Bhabhi comics); it includes sites that outline ways to bypass censorship and sites that offer bulk phone calls and SMS.
In 2006 and 2007, the Indian government was deeply embarrassed after banning some websites hosted on Blogspot, Typepad and Yahoo Group domains. Due to lack of expertise, it couldn’t selectively filter and ended up blocking entire domains. This made the bans very obvious and led to protests. Since then, the government has tried to get web hosting services to remove content, rather than run into the same PR issues again. It routinely makes multiple requests to web hosts to remove content, and also to release information about users.
Between January and June 2011, the Google Transparency Report says the government made requests for Google to remove 358 items of content and asked for details of 2,439 users. As many as 255 of those items pertained to “criticism of government”. Google claims it complied with 51 percent of content-removal requests and with 70 percent of requests for user-details. It is reliably learnt that the government has made similar multiple requests of Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and others, though exact numbers are not known. In 2008, the Centre amended the IT Act, adding to its “power of filtration”. It took three years to get the Amendment passed (the 13-month syndrome). But as of May 2011, the government is armed with even more powers than before.
CUTTING A long story short, the service provider hosting content is now liable under Indian law. This is equivalent to making the postal department liable for hate-mail. If a service provider is notified that some content is ‘objectionable’, ‘disparaging’, ‘harassing’, ‘blasphemous’ or ‘hateful’, the content must be taken down within 36 hours. No review or appeal.
The words ‘objectionable’, ‘disparaging’, ‘harassing’, ‘blasphemous’ and ‘hateful’ can be interpreted in multiple ways and the law can obviously be used to nuke any content whatsoever. This law could, for example, be used to remove an online poll ranking politicians on the basis of facial hair. The government argument is that the IT Act amendment 2008 is in line with international cyber law. It is actually in line only with copyright law. In a Western democracy, such a takedown request would only be made for copyright violation.
In late 2011, Minister for Communications and IT Kapil Sibal floated a trial balloon after backdoor negotiations with various web service providers were reported in mainstream media. He said he wished that somehow content could be filtered before it went on to social networking sites. There was both laughter and outrage at this manifest absurdity. Sibal was called unparliamentary names as he back-tracked and claimed he didn’t want censorship.
But in December 2011, the Centre sanctioned prosecution in a case that could further tighten the screws. An individual, Vinay Rai, made a list of some content that he thought could “cause communal riots across the country”. A set of 10 companies and 21 websites were hauled up in court. Rai’s list dates back to January 2011 and there has, so far, been a deafening absence of communal riots triggered by the cited content in the year and more since it has been made freely accessible.
The laws under which this case is going to trial date back to the 1861 Indian Penal Code. Justice Suresh Kait, who is trying the case said that if necessary, “Like China, we too can block such websites.” The fact is, China has tried and failed. China has the “Great Firewall”. It has armies of censors. It bans social media sites and tools like Twitter and Facebook. It bans Skype. It has still not been able to prevent web-dissidence. The only way is to cut off all international telecommunications. India too, has a contingency plan to shut off all gateways. But for obvious reasons, it could only be used in extremis.
The Constitution (Article 19 A) guarantees the Freedom of Speech with “reasonable restrictions in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”. From what one has seen of the banned websites, many would not qualify on any of those grounds. The way Indian cyber laws and processes have been framed, the government obviously hopes to avoid any challenge on grounds of constitutional freedom by simply denying information about what it would like banned.
Devangshu Datta is Senior journalist.