The second ‘Freedom on the Net’ (FOTN) report by the Washington-based Freedom Institute has expressed concern over the decreasing freedom of expression on the Internet in India.
The Institute, which put India in the company of states like China, Egypt and Iran which saw a deterioration of freedom of expression on the Internet since the 2009 report, highlighted the tightening of surveillance and prosecution of online posts. India’s freedom index declined from 34 in 2009 to 36 in 2011, reflecting the tightening controls.
It also noted that unlike in countries like China where the government assumes the role of the Internet police; in India, writers and bloggers have to fear both the government and ‘nonstate actors’ such as big corporations.
“While online journalists and bloggers are not often required to censor their writing, it is understood that certain topics must be approached with caution,” the report noted. “These include religion, communalism, the corporate-government nexus, links between government and organized crime, Kashmiri separatism, hostile rhetoric from Pakistan, and various forms of aggressive, demagogic speech.”
“Such topics are indeed addressed by online writers, but they are handled carefully to avoid inciting violence, particularly by nonstate actors,” it pointed out. It also pointed out that unlike most other countries, most of the content forced to be taken down related to communities and individuals, rather than directly to politics and matters of the state.
Partly due to the caution exercised by bloggers themselves, they are rarely forced to take down their writings, the report noted, but also pointed to the famous case of NDTV journalist Barkha Dutt forcing blogger Chetan Kunte to take down his writings.
“Chetan Kunte criticized NDTV journalist Barkha Dutt for her station’s coverage of the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, accusing her of engaging in sensationalism and irresponsibly airing information about the movements of security forces. Dutt and NDTV threatened to seek punitive measures against Kunte through the courts, and the blogger agreed to remove the critical content,” the report pointed out.
On the government side, instead of an institutional agency that monitors web-content like in China or Saudi Arabia, India’s filtering requests have come from state-level executive authorities and from private individuals through court cases, the report pointed out. The agency CERT-IN is in charge of blocking websites, but only on the basis of requests from security officials, it pointed out.
On the downside, because of the ‘ad hoc’ nature of such blockages, there is neither any public list of blocked websites nor a way for the affected website to request for a review or appeal, it noted.
However, the report noted the increase in the powers of the state over content posted on the Internet thanks to the amendment of the Indian Telegraph Act in 2009.
“The 2008 amendments.. [expanded] state surveillance capacity, including interception of SMS and e-mail messages.. [and] broadened the scope of activities identified as criminal offenses under the act, which now include sending messages that are deemed offensive, dishonestly receiving stolen computer resources or communication devices, identity theft, impersonation, violation of bodily privacy, cyberterrorism, and the publication or transmission of sexually explicit material,” the Freedom on the Net report 2011 noted.
The amendments also now permit the government to collect any digitally transmitted data, without even a warrant. “Previously, such surveillance was governed by the 1885 Telegraph Act, which allowed it only during times of “public emergency” or in the “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India,” it said.
The new law also sets up to seven years’ imprisonment for representatives of ISPs and telecom operators, search engines like Google and owners of cybercafes for not giving data or failing to block or erase content as directed by the government.
“Although opening a cybercafe was relatively simple in the past, law enforcement authorities have reportedly complicated the process in recent years. Obtaining a license now requires approval from as many as six different agencies,” it added.
The report also noted the submission made by Reliance Communications to the Supreme Court recently that the government had put in 150,000 phone tapping requests from 2006 to 2010, or 30,000 requests per year.
It also noted that when Google began reporting government requests for data and content removal in early 2010, India ranked third in the world for removal requests and fourth for data requests. Between July 1, 2009, and December 31, 2009, India had submitted 142 removal requests, of which 77.5 percent were fully or partially complied with. The requests related to the Blogger blog-hosting service, Book Search, Geo, SMS channels, web searches, YouTube, and especially Orkut.
In specifics, the report mentioned the following specific cases for concern in the review:
In 2009, the authorities blocked a highly popular adult cartoon site called Savitabhabhi without granting the creators an opportunity to defend their right to free expression, raising concerns about the arbitrary nature and broad scope of the government’s power in this area
In September 2007, after Google and a major ISP cooperated with a police investigation, information-technology worker Lakshmana Kailash K was jailed for 50 days for allegedly defaming an Indian historical figure online.
In May 2008, two men were arrested and charged for posting derogatory comments about Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi on Orkut; the case is still pending.
In July 2010, a magazine editor in the southern city of Kerala was arrested on defamation charges for an article posted on the magazine’s website about an Indian businessman residing in Abu Dhabi.
In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that both bloggers and moderators can face libel suits and even criminal prosecution for comments posted by other users on their websites due to several anonymous comments criticizing the right-wing party Shiv Sena that appeared on a web community moderated by a 19-year-old from Kerala, Ajith D.