Monday, May 16, 2011

Is the Internet really free in India?

No, it is not. Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media report, which got released on 18 April, 2011, is a comprehensive study of Internet freedom in 37 countries around the globe. India receives a score of 36 points (partly free) on Freedom on the Net* as compared to 13 (free) by USA, 55 (partly free) by Pakistan and 83 (not free) by China. However, India's Freedom on the Net has declined by 2 points from 34 in 2009 to 36 in 2011.

Freedom on the Net 2011 report from Freedom House observes that governments in 15 out of 37 countries have engaged in blocking of politically relevant content. Following terrorist attacks in Mumbai during November, 2008 and expansion of Maoist insurgency, the Indian Government seems keen to control the communications sector (in the face of increased Internet and mobile phone penetration). Amendments done to the Information Technology Act in 2008 have expanded the government's censorship and monitoring capabilities. In August 2010, the Department of Telecommunications was asked by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) to suspend newly introduced 3G mobile service and halt providers’ ongoing rollout of the technology, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. One could observe short-message service (SMS), or text messaging, being blocked periodically in Jammu and Kashmir. Mass text messaging across India got banned (for 3 days) by the Government of India on 23 September, 2010 in anticipation of a court ruling on a hotly disputed place of worship in Ayodhya.

There exists pressure since late 2009 on private intermediaries to remove certain information in compliance with administrative censorship orders, with the implementation of the amended IT Act. Ever since the IT Act was amended, Google has received more requests for data and content removal during the period 2009-2010. Apart from the Chaitanya Kunte-Barkha Dutt episode, there is hardly any instance when a blogger is asked to take down his writings. Bloggers are expected to write in a sensible manner that may not incite violence. However, arrests have been made in the past for online postings to defame historical figure or to post derogatory comments about any political leader. .

The report on Internet freedom may be relevant for those who know that the Indian government has recently proposed (in April, 2011) to regulate content on blogs. Intermediaries who provide web-hosting services, Internet service providers and online auction sites are asked not to display, upload, modify or publish any information that is 'harmful', 'threatening', 'abusive', 'harassing', 'blasphemous', 'objectionable', 'defamatory', 'vulgar', 'obscene', 'pornographic', 'paedophilic', 'libellous', 'invasive of another's privacy', 'hateful', 'disparaging', 'racially , ethnically or otherwise objectionable', 'relating to money laundering or gambling'. In response to the government's move, bloggers feel that their right to agitate and dissent would be seriously undermined due to changes in the IT Act norms. Some experts think that the new rules are going to provide a lot of discretion to non-judicial authorities so as to decide whether an intermediary has observed due diligence or not. Others feel that privacy of individuals would be violated if government has easier access to content from intermediaries. The culture of debate and discussion on the Internet could be affected if such restrictions are imposed. The new rules do not allow the bloggers to defend their content. Some of the rules appear extremely vague.

The report on digital freedom, which has been edited by Sanja Kelly and Sarah Cook tells us that website blocking and filtering, content manipulation, attacks on and imprisonment of bloggers, and cyber attacks have increased during the recent past. The study shows that Internet freedom is increasingly undermined by legal harassment, opaque censorship procedures and expanding surveillance even in democracies like India, Brazil, Indonesia, S Korea, Turkey and the UK. Popularity of advanced applications like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter among ordinary users has made governments in 12 out of 37 countries to consistently or temporarily impose bans on such services.

* Ratings by Freedom on the Net are determined through an examination of three broad categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violation of user rights.

1. Obstacles to Access: assesses infrastructural and economic barriers to access; governmental efforts to block specific applications or technologies; and legal, regulatory and ownership control over internet and mobile phone access providers.

2. Limits on Content: examines filtering and blocking of websites; other forms of censorship and self-censorship; manipulation of content; the diversity of online news media; and usage of digital media for social and political activism.

3. Violations of User Rights: measures legal protections and restrictions on online activity; surveillance; privacy; and repercussions for online activity, such as legal prosecution, imprisonment, physical attacks, or other forms of harassment.

Further readings:

Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media by Sanja Kelly and Sarah Cook,

The 10 Tools of Online Oppressors by Committee to Protect Journalists,

Press Freedom Index 2010,,1034.html

Concern over impact of Internet control rules on free speech by Sandeep Joshi, The Hindu, 11 May, 2011,

India Puts Tight Leash on Internet Free Speech by Vikas Bajaj, The New York Times, 27 April, 2011,

Bloggers up against restrictions by Vasudha Venugopal, The Hindu, 13 March, 2011,

Plan to muzzle bloggers sparks outcry by Atul Thakur, The Times of India, 10 March, 2011,

New Rules May Make Online Censorship Easier In India by John Ribeiro,, 8 March, 2011,

Bloggers call content regulation a gag on freedom by Srividya Iyer, The Economic Times, 9 March, 2011,

A Revolution, Unplugged by Aprille Muscara, 1 February, 2011,

IT Act, if enforced, will leave Internet use no freer than in China, DNA India

Draconian rulebook irks netizens, Deccan Chronicle

India sliding down Internet freedom - Freedom Institute, RTN

New cyber regulation smells of Big Brother, Hindustan Times

Google opposes proposed Internet law, India Today

Google external lawyer on India, Wall Street Journal

Flagged for Removal: Online Censorship on the Rise by Aprille Muscara, 2 May, 2011,