A few months back, Kapil Sibal, India’s telecommunications minister, reportedly asked the Internet companies to have employees prescreen content before it is posted to ensure it is not offensive. It was widely reported that he specifically demanded they keep derogatory material about the country’s leaders off their websites.
In another case, last month, the Indian court told Internet giants Google and Facebook that their websites can be blocked "like China" if they fail to come up with a way to remove "offensive and objectionable" material from their web pages, especially religiously offensive content. The magistrate of the trial court had observed that the material submitted by the complainant contained obscene pictures and derogatory articles pertaining to various Hindu gods, Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ. While the step taken by India's political establishment and the one by its Judiciary need to be seen differently, the recent activities clearly indicate a strong leaning towards censorship of the Internet. Is India only attempting to emulate China or really wanting to go beyond in curbing free speech on the Internet? In its attempt to govern the Internet, the Indian government has chosen a hegemonic path. In the aftermath of last year’s Arab Spring, which was facilitated in many countries (especially Tunisia and Egypt) by network-enabled mobilization and at a time when autocratic governments are cracking down against online freedom, it is worth pausing to get straight the concept so many hold dear. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, the Internet can quickly transform local incidents into national flashpoints – turning the new connectivity into a potential source of political instability and turmoil. But that has been the case only in countries ruled by highly unpopular autocratic regimes.
And then there is the dark side of the Chinese Internet explosion, that is widespread censorship and constraints on individual freedom of expression. China’s “SkyNet” team, which is rumored to be greater than 30,000, is the largest cyber police force in the world. Moreover, while China is not alone in censoring the Internet, self-policing by many of the nation’s largest portals amplifies official oversight and surveillance. Recent restrictions on microbloggers – especially denial of access to those who use untraceable aliases – have heightened concerns over Chinese Internet freedom. Such restrictions, of course, cut both ways – potentially limiting personal expression, but also constraining disguised and reckless vigilante attacks.
As India celebrates the 63rd Republic Day, we need to protect free speech and the freedom of expression as enshrined in our constitution, even as regards to matters relating to the Internet and the electronic domain. While we enjoy freedom of speech, large quarters of people agree that impermissible content such as child pornography, obscenity, hate speech, and religious insults, should not be available on the Internet, there are methods by which this can be curbed and it is important for the government to apply that methodology.
Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, recently argued in the New York Times that Internet access is not a human right. He says, “Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.”
As greater proportion of human activity is mediated through Internet-based technologies, the extent of our online rights — and what we really mean by “Internet freedom” — will take on greater importance in political and economic life. Government officials and their private sector counterparts have a key role to play in all of this. We need to formulate acceptable international definitions of Internet freedom, aggression, and cyber security. We also need to continually articulate the distinction between political speech permissible and truly illicit online activity (like child pornography, cyber crime, and terrorism). None of this will be easy. While we are on the journey towards finding an "acceptable" solution, we can expect some interesting debates from different quarters.