Internet governance and right to speech

Internet governance and right to speech

Last August, the United Kingdom was stunned to find disturbing penetration of social media that aided “loot at will” through images and texts to further fuel riots in London.

The independent, Riots Communities and Victims Panel -- set up to look into the riots -- agreed in its report finalised this March that the urban incidents flared due to virtually live broadcasting of the crime by social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger.

But, the three-member panel comprising NRI Darra Singh, cautioned the UK government against plan to block websites that were medium to spread upsetting content.

Exactly a year later, India also finds itself bound in a similar cyber censorship versus freedom of expression debate post Assam violence - the clash between ethnic Bodo tribe and Muslim illegal immigrants, that left more than 76 persons killed and several others injured.

The social networking sites, believed Union Home ministry, was used by miscreants across the border in Pakistan and within the country to upload evil designed, morphed and concocted images and texts to create instability in the country, forcing North-East origin people to flee back to their homes from the rest of the country. 

The UPA government, which by virtue of its inertia and indifference allowed the two communities to create mayhem in the Bodo- controlled districts, retaliated to police the cyber world by asking social media Twitter, You Tube and Google to block sites and pages after identifying the hate content pushers.

In its preliminary report on the use of social media to generate unrest and violence among different communities, the Home ministry said that social media, emails, internet chat rooms and VOIP calls were rampantly used to spread disinformation and rumours in Assam and other parts of the country. 

“…The Assam violence has also been dovetailed as being part of the same narrative in a world where Muslims are being persecuted,” the ministry report claims, to sum up the motive behind the vindictive and vicious e-move.

Given its instant and wide reach, the medium operates on no personal contact beliefs and is a potential tool for psychological pulls in a world where individuals are getting isolated despite increasing attempts to stitch countries into one global village.

First time in December last year, when Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal summoned executives of social media networks, like Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft, asking them to filter all offensive messages and videos, he faced strong resistance.

When Sibal announced framing rules for social media, it became the butt of jokes in the cyber world, forcing the minister to do a U-turn on his words. He had said that “we don’t want any censorship” and, instead, favoured the companies to ensure hate messages were not posted on their websites.

But, the social networking websites officials had expressed their helplessness on pre-screening of content due to the large volume of content that gets uploaded. Besides they also said that as servers are located in foreign locations, particularly the US, Indian law is not applicable to them.

While opposing the government’s attempt to monitor and control the Internet, they said the Indian IT law does not make the companies liable for messages posted by its users.
“Take one Twitter account. If one person tweets, there may be ten persons re-tweeting on it.

If this is the case of one Twitter account, think of the number of tweets possible on one lakh Twitter accounts. It is humanly impossible to filter each and every account,” says a social media representative. Though Facebook and Google, which host YouTube and Orkut, promise to co-operate with the government to prevent posting any hate messages, they did not provide any permanent solutions.

Telecom policy

The cyber security incidents reported to government nodal agency Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) between 2004-2011, also suggests that there is a sharp increase in website intrusion and malware propogation, spam, virus and malicious code, network probing and phishing.

Prior to Assam violence, the UPA government had to face music during the Team Anna public protest fast last year at Ramlila Ground in the Capital city seeking effective Lokpal for checking rampant corruption. Even then the officials were caught napping as Team Anna had effectively used social media for massive mobilisation of masses. Globally, the same medium was used to swell crowd for public protests, especially during the Arab Spring.

The series of events have pulled the UPA government out of the slumber to carry out a security audit of the telecom architecture in the country. The department of telecom has prepared for the first time an Internet Telecom Security Policy which would be put before the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for clearance.

The policy wants the international social networking sites and service providers to adhere to the national laws and provide solutions for more effective national security interventions.

The North Block mandarins are of the view that instead of having sole option of blocking objectionable material in the entire country, the solution should be decentralised to give retail switch offs for cutting off particular states depending on the situation.

The policy proposes creation of ‘National Telecom Security Certifying Organisation’ for allowing free traffic of only filtered content since the government believes that the tech solution is better than regimented cyber policing, crippling Glasnost which is core to any vibrant democratic society. 

The new draft policy wants telecom companies to foot the expensive bills for upgrading infrastructure – a move which will be resisted by service providers.

The MHA also intends to educate people through advertisements on the fact that people can be booked under the Information and Technology Act on charges of disseminating objectionable material.

China leads

Arguing that the government should wake up immediately to prevent misuse of social media, Pawan Duggal, advocate, cyber law expert says there is urgent need to strengthen the law.  India should learn from China on how to control the social media, he says.

However, a former senior intelligence officer who has worked in the cyber security field, on the condition of anonymity, said that the government is well within its right to block content that creates upheavals in the country.

But, an independent judicial oversight mechanism should be put in place to ensure that the intrusive power is not misused as it repeatedly happens in telephone monitoring.

“Controlling the Internet is not a good idea. But the government should educate users on how it can be misused by posting provocative pictures or messages,” said Rajesh Chharia, president, Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI).

“If the government imposed severe restriction on social media, then the penetration of Internet would come down,” he cautioned.

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