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Social media screening: Sibal's target was political blasphemy

On Thursday, Justice Suresh Kait of the Delhi High Court sent shivers down the spines of social media sites when he threatened to do a China, in terms of internet censorship.

Taking a cue from neighbouring China, the judge warned Google, Facebook and Yahoo! of blocking their sites if they did not devise a mechanism to screen online content. "Like China, we too can block such websites," Justice Kait observed, while refusing to grant a stay on the proceedings against 21 companies in the Vinay Rai versus Facebook case.

Justice Kait's words must have been music to Communications Minister Kapil Sibal’s ears — who has been trying to get social media companies to self-censor. However, like Sibal, Justice Kait may be out-of-date.

The reality is that India has been tightening the screws on websites for a while now. Between July 2009 and June 2011, the government of India (GOI) sent 307 requests to Google asking it to remove 765 items.

India has been tightening the screws on websites for a while now. Reuters

During the same period, China sent three requests pertaining to 121 items — which may be because China censors sites directly. But, it still serves to show that the Indian government is no shrinking lily when it comes to censorship.

Even Pakistan does not censor as much.

During the same time, Pakistan sent less than 20 requests to Google to remove content.

Last year saw an avalanche of government requests to remove items. Between January and June 2011, the Indian government asked Google to remove 358 items in all. The company complied in more than half these cases. Orkut hosted 264 of these items, while 48 were found on YouTube. Blogspot (a Google subsidiary) published 39 offensive items, as per the requests.

But, one may argue, surely we can’t allow blasphemous stuff and threats to national security to be published without checks?

Hah! Out of 358 items mentioned above, 255 were found offensive as they criticised the government and 39 items were defamatory in nature, according to the government. In short, the blasphemy was against the government.

Only one item was deemed a threat to national security.

Google Transparency Report notes that during the six-month span (January-June 2011), a law enforcement agency requested Google to remove 236 communities and profiles from Orkut that were ‘critical of a local politician’. The company did not comply with this request, since the content did not violate its community standards or local law.

“There should be adequate checks and balances before pulling down content from the internet. The guidelines should be stricter than what we have in place today,” says Pawan Duggal, cyber law expert.

Between July 2009 and June 2011, the government sent 7,600 requests to the search engine asking for details about the user or ‘user data’. Google complied in more than 70 percent of the cases.

Experts say that this is the government’s way of trying to control the digital world, which is very close to the hearts of those who believe in freedom of expression.

The first time the government brought the internet world within the ambit of legislation was through the IT Act 2000. At that time, the Act acted as a guideline for digital commerce. It was a welcome step considering the evolving nature of the e-commerce industry in the country.

However, the social media came into the picture in 2008, when the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, mentioned the role of intermediaries such as Google which act as repositories of information and do not generate original content.

But 2011 took the cake. Riding on the theory that terrorists may wage cyber attacks on the country which could put the entire government machinery in jeopardy, the government brought the IT (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011.

No doubt, there may be genuine concerns on cyber threats. The intelligence agencies claim to have solid evidence showing that terrorists have access to cyber tools like never before. But, what experts find unfortunate is that the government is using these very rules to hound internet companies.

The 2011 rules put the onus of providing information on intermediaries such as Google. “It is like saying that the National Highway Authority of India is responsible if a truck on one of its highways is found to be carrying explosives or counterfeit currency,” said Dr R Swaminathan, fellow, National Internet Exchange of India.

“The law, which was supposed to tackle terrorist attacks, is now being used by the government for online censorship,” he added.

A look at how the government approaches companies for the removal of content shows that our netas and babus (read: Kapil Sibal and Company) are working day and night to make sure that nothing offensive is available on the ‘erring’ sites.

Between July and December 2010, the government wanted 282 items removed through 67 requests it sent to Google. Only 12 of these cases saw the involvement of courts. The rest of the requests were carried out through the executive/police.

On Thursday, the government gave its sanction to a lower court in Delhi to prosecute the representatives of 21 companies for objectionable content, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo!

The government has found the websites guilty of promoting enmity between classes and causing prejudice to national integration.

“The sanctioning authority has personally gone through the entire records and materials produced before him and, after considering and examining the same, he is satisfied that there is sufficient material to proceed against the accused persons under sections 153-A, 153-B and 295-A of the IPC," the centre said in its report placed before Metropolitan Magistrate Sudesh Kumar.