Freedom virtual, fear real

The cyber world offers almost unlimited freedom of expression. This has obvious advantages but it can also be damaging if misused. At present, there is concern about the Internet turning into the medium of fear and a clamour for legal checks. But the best filter, says Subimal Bhattacharjee, would be a balanced and responsible approach towards keeping cyberspace free from unwanted content.

IN just over a decade, that the medium of Internet has been known in the public domain this country, it has created a large impact among the users. It has been able to reach people in different walks of life and has become a companion either in work or at home.

Internet has ushered in the cyberspace that refers to the virtual, where humans communicate and intermingle using the medium of Internet technology. Cyberspace has given us humans the right to express ourselves as we do in the physical world. Being a democratic country, India has allowed maximum freedom of speech and expression through the Fundamental Rights as enshrined in our Constitution. This has been well practised in the physical world and its defining parameters are also clear and finite.

However in cyberspace this freedom of expression has its own nuances. As cyberspace eliminates the physical and geographical barriers, the freedom of expression gets a wider platform, allowing all form of expressions which could be limited in the real world. Some of the recent incidents have clearly showed where such freedom could lead. The most recent being the posting of the video clip of Mahatma Gandhi on the popular video sharing website Youtube, recently acquired by Google.

An NRI posted a video of Gandhiji dancing with a pole and removing his clothes and then in the company of two women doing that same dance and the video was titled ‘Time to get sexy’. There were adverse reactions from various sections of society about the appropriateness of such a video, but the fact remains that the Father of the Nation could be lampooned in such a derogatory manner in the medium of cyberspace without any immediate consequences to the doer.

Google cared little for the sentiments of millions of Indians, although it went to China by agreeing to all forms of censorship that its regime imposed on it. Also, the question of legal jurisdiction arises when it involves postings and content availability across multiple countries.

Likewise not to far away in the recent past, Orkut, another website from the Google stable which allowed online socialising, ran pages of content encouraging hate India propaganda. This, apart from occasional postings of obscene materials and morphed pictures by devious users trying to settle scores with people whom they have enmity with.

There have been the occasional intervention of courts to restrain such content, but the point remains that such unwanted content found the light of day. The issue is how does one regulate such content and whether there should be a point of responsibility. Should the popular interactive websites be allowed to offer all forms of expression without carrying a certain sense of responsibility or could there be some content filtering technology? Again, would such recourse be a successful one considering the fact that the Internet is perceived by many to be the ultimate forum of expression?

The answer is difficult to find. On the one hand there are the campaigners of free speech who say that the Internet medium was made to be a free medium and attempts to regulate it or its content would have a debilitating effect on the medium itself. On the other hand, with more and more people using the medium, there are serious concerns among the law enforcement agencies and even governments about the Internet turning out to be the medium of fear.

So, what can be the best strategy — the answer could lie in a ‘balanced flow of information’, which has been the yardstick for the Government of India as far as online censorship is concerned. In India, the Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act) addresses almost every aspect of cyberspace and currently a Bill has been tabled in Parliament to amend certain provisions and make it stronger and relevant.

The IT Act addresses obscene and pornographic content under Section 67 and Section 69 and gives the Controller of Certifying Authorities the power to intercept any information transmitted by any computer resources about the content related to the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State and public order.

However, the provisions related to blocking of websites is not there in the IT Act and there is a separate gazette notification of February 2003 that lays the procedure for the blocking of websites. Content promoting hate, slander or defamation of others, promoting gambling, promoting racism, violence and terrorism and all forms of pornography, including child pornography and violent sex, are covered here but only specified officers can submit such a complaint on that basis to the Computer Emergency Response Team - India (CERT-IND) under the Ministry of Communications & IT, which can issue the blocking after it verifies the complaint and feels that such a step is essential.

So far, the track record of the government has been good and there have been only two instances of such blocking — one in 2003 when a particular yahoogroup containing hate content of a Meghalaya-based terrorist group was blocked, and the next one was in July 2006, when some 13 sites promoting religious fundamentalism were blocked.

In the former there was a lot of hue and cry as the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) had blocked all yahoogroups due to the fact that selective content was very difficult to block unless the website owners took it off. The same is the situation still and it is difficult to technologically undertake such filtration.

Thus the scope for censorship has been made very tight and the government has been very careful on this count. So the role of the ISPs and the large content providers becomes very crucial in terms of holding some basic norms for online postings. Most of the violations have been related to third-party postings. And so even if stringent terms and conditions have been set, users have still been able to get away and make their expressions.

As more and more users log on in cyberspace, the situation is going to be more difficult. So there is the need for global cooperation in this field. The initiative of the UN to address all issues related to Internet governance is a good beginning but there is no clear consensus about what should be a standard for online content which touches all geographical and cultural entities.

Many of the countries that are crying for freedom of the Internet medium today throttle online free speech in their own countries. The role of the governments and industry as also the ordinary users become tremendous to understand the need for keeping the medium free from all forms of unwanted content.

Cyberspace has given us great opportunities and so cynical expressions should not vitiate the atmosphere so much that all forms of surveillance and censorship rules the medium. The responsibility lies in greater understanding, not laws or technological solutions at filtration. For now the Indian cyberspace can appreciate the fact that some of the recent incidents have raised the right awareness and we all can take lessons towards some mature online expressions.

The writer is an expert on cyber security policy

Controls & checks

The Information Technology Act 2000 lays down the following provisions related to censorship:

Publishing of obscene information in electronic form (Section 67)

Whoever publishes or transmits or causes to be published in the electronic form, any material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, shall be punished on first conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years and with fine which may extend to Rs 1 lakh and in the event of a second or subsequent conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years and also with fine which may extend to Rs 2 lakh.

Controller’s directions to subscriber (Section 69)

(1) If the Controller is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence, for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct any agency of the Government to intercept any information transmitted through any computer resource.

(2) The subscriber or any person in charge of the computer resource shall, when called upon by any agency which has been directed under sub-section (1), extend all facilities and technical assistance to decrypt the information.

(3) The subscriber or any person who fails to assist the agency referred to in sub-section (2) shall be punished with an imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years.

Law on blocking sites

In exercise of the provisions of Section 67 and Section 88 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Central Government, after consultation with the Cyber Regulations Advisory Committee, prescribes the following procedure for blocking of websites:

Computer Emergency Response Team - India (CERT-IND) shall be the single authority for issue of instructions in the context of blocking of websites. CERT-IND, after verifying the authenticity of the complaint and after satisfying that action of blocking of website is absolutely essential, shall instruct Department of Telecommunications (DOT) - (LR Cell) to block the website. DOT, under whose control the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are functioning will ensure the blocking of websites and inform CERT-IND accordingly.

CERT could be approached by the:

(i) Secretary, National Security Council Secretariat.

(ii) Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.

(iii) Foreign Secretary in the Department of External Affairs or a representative not below the rank of Joint Secretary.

(iv) Secretaries, Departments of Home Affairs of each of the states and of the union territories.

(v) Central Bureau of Investigation, Intelligence Bureau , Director General of Police of all the states and such other enforcement agencies.

(vi) Secretaries of Heads of all the Information Technology Departments of all states and union territories not below the rank of Joint Secretary of Central Government.

(vii) Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission or Minorities Commission or Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes Commission or National Women Commission.

(viii) The directives of the Courts.

(ix) Any others as may be specified by the Government.

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