Dr. Pradeep Kumar Misra is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Allied Sciences of M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly, India. In this post, Dr. Misra discusses internet censorship in India.
Internet censorship is one of the most widely debated issues of the present day. Citizens, researchers, academic institutions, and governments across the globe are discussing and coming to different sets of observations and conclusions concerning censorship. For example, a UN Report based on a poll of twenty nations stated that, “With just a few exceptions majorities say that the government should not have the right to limit access to the Internet.” A report from U.S.-based Freedom House observes, “Restrictions on Internet freedom continue to expand across a wide range of countries. Over the past year, the global number of censored websites has increased, while Internet users in various countries have been arrested, tortured, and killed over the information they posted online.” The Freedom House report further observes that in three democracies – India, the United States, and Brazil –it had seen troubling declines in internet freedom.
In light of the fact that India is the world’s largest democracy and has a rapidly growing number of netizens, issues of internet censorship attract greater attention and scrutiny from stakeholders on both a local and global scale. The issues of internet censorship and internet freedom in India are complex, and one encounters a number of opinions and observations regarding these issues. It has been observed that recent international reports fear that internet freedom is declining in India, and concerns have been raised about the internet’s use for free speech. Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note how India’s community sees the issue of internet censorship. To answer this question, it will be useful first to learn about existing policies and recent cases involving internet censorship in India.
Internet Censorship Policies in India
In its first attempt at internet monitoring, the Indian Parliament created the Information Technology (IT) Act in June 2000, which provided a legal framework for regulating Internet use and commerce, including digital signatures, security, and hacking. The act criminalized the electronic publishing of obscene information and granted police the power to search any premise without a warrant and to arrest individuals in violation of the act. A 2008 amendment to the IT Act reinforced the government’s power, allowing it to block internet sites and content. The 2008 amendment also criminalized sending messages that the government deemed inflammatory or offensive. In April 2011, the “IT Rules 2011” were adopted as a supplement to the 2000 IT Act. The new rules require internet companies to remove, within thirty-six hours of being notified by the authorities, any content that is deemed objectionable, particularly if its nature “infringes copyright” or is “defamatory,” “hateful,” or “harmful to minors.”
A large number of people in India access the internet via cyber cafés. As per cyber café rules established in 2011, owners are required to photograph their customers, set up their cafés so that all computer screens are in plain sight, and keep copies of client IDs and their browsing histories for one year. All client data must be forwarded to the government each month. In 2003, India’s government established the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) to ensure internet security. Its stated mission is “to enhance the security of India’s Communications and Information Infrastructure through proactive action and effective collaboration.” Internet filtering in India is also mandated through licensing requirements. For example, ISPs seeking licenses to provide internet services with the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) “shall block Internet sites and/or individual subscribers, as identified and directed by the Telecom Authority from time to time” in the interest of “national security.” License agreements also require ISPs to prevent the transmission of obscene or otherwise objectionable material. In a nutshell, while there is no sustained government policy or strategy for large scale internet censorship, central and state governments in India have adopted a number of measures and powers in order to remove internet content or block access to it.
Recent Cases of Internet Censorship in India
Recently, a number of cases involving internet censorship have been reported in India. On December 5, 2011, the New York Times’ India Ink reported that the Indian government had asked several social media sites and internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo!, to “prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online.” On December 7, 2011, the Times of India revealed, as per a Google transparency report, that Google was asked to remove around 358 items by the Government of India, 255 of which were said to criticize the government. The transparency report added that the government had asked Google to remove 236 items from Orkut and 19 items from YouTube for the same reason. Other removal request reasons included defamation, privacy and security, impersonation, hate speech, pornography, and national security. In January 2012, a Delhi court issued summonses to Google and Facebook headquarters for objectionable content. Following the summonses, the Delhi High Court said that websites such as Google and Facebook were liable for the content posted on their platform by users because the companies benefited from the content.
Between August 18 and 21, 2012, the Indian government reportedly ordered more than three hundred specific URLs blocked. The blocked articles, accounts, groups, and videos were said to contain inflammatory content with fictitious details of Assam violence and supposedly promoted the exodus of people from northeast India. These specific URLs included domains from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, BlogSpot, WordPress, Google Plus, Wikipedia, Times of India, and other websites. The Times of India reported on a Department of Telecom (DoT) order dated June 13, 2013 that directed Indian internet service providers (ISPs) to block thirty-nine websites. More recently, a number of cases have been filed for postings on social media sites criticizing the country’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Considering these cases and incidents, it can be stated that measures for removing content that is obscene, endangers public order, or threatens national security have become more common in India in recent years.
Censorship of Internet in India: International Opinions
Regarding international opinions on internet censorship in India, it appears that many believe that internet freedom is declining. For example, the 2011 OpenNet Initiative (ONI) report classified India as engaged in selective internet filtering in the political, conflict, security, social, and internet tools areas. ONI describes India as: “A stable democracy with a strong tradition of press freedom, [that] nevertheless continues its regime of internet filtering.” India’s selective censorship, often under the guise of security, has been met with significant opposition. Reporters Without Borders added India to its list of “countries under surveillance,” stating that: “Since the Mumbai bombings of 2008, the Indian authorities have stepped up internet surveillance and pressure on technical service providers, while publicly rejecting accusations of censorship. The national security policy of the world’s biggest democracy is undermining freedom of expression and the protection of internet users’ personal data.”
Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2012 report said of India: “While there is no sustained government policy or strategy to block access to Internet content on a large scale, measures for removing certain content from the web, sometimes for fear they could incite violence, have become more common.” Citing examples of Indian censorship, the 2013 Freedom House report found that the Indian government deliberately interrupted mobile and internet service to limit communal tensions between Muslims and communities in the north east of India in August 2013. The report further observes that hundreds of web pages were blocked in 2012, mainly at the request of the government and largely to control unrest. In summation, all of these reports point out that India has had a decline in internet freedom and has enhanced its surveillance powers over the past few years.
Censorship of Internet in India: A View from Uttar Pradesh (UP)
To understand local opinions on internet censorship, residents of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state, were asked via an online survey whether they supported internet censorship. This survey was part of an Internet Policy Observatory (IPO) commissioned project entitled “Socio-Economic Impact of the Internet Policy in India (State of Uttar Pradesh) from a Local to Global Perspective.” Out of 203 respondents, the majority (64%) advocated for some kind of censorship on internet. A respondent suggested, “Internet is very important for the growth of any state/ country but it needs some censorship.” At first glance, these opinions seem to oppose both international public opinions that say governments should not limit internet access, as well as the popular perception that the majority of internet users are against any internet censorship. When one delves deeper, however, it seems that there are specific reasons behind Uttar Pradesh’s citizens’ calls for internet censorship.
The same UN report that found that the majority of people do not believe the government should have the right to limit access to the internet also states that many Muslims and Russians accept press restrictions to preserve political stability. Similarly, people in Uttar Pradesh have concerns regarding certain uses of the internet and support limited internet censorship. For example, in India the internet was recently used to spread rumors and hate speech/hate images that caused socio-communal tensions in some parts of the country. This seems to be the primary reason many people are in favor of some policing of the internet. Respondents also indicated that they believe some internet censorship will do more good than harm. As observed by a participant in a debate ‘Does the Internet need Censorship’: “It’s not the freedom of speech that is targeted in the Internet censorship targets, it’s the posers, the hackers, the theft of personal information, the wide spread of pornography, the social disconnect of people because of online game addictions.”
Though many in Uttar Pradesh are in favor of internet policing, a good number of respondents (36%) are against any effort to curtail freedom of expression online. These respondents hold the view that policymakers and governments should not attempt to govern the internet. A respondent of the survey suggests, “Internet offers many opportunities for people to freely express their views and concerns and it will be a foul on part of governments(s) to seize this right.” These views are substantiated by participants in the previously mentioned ‘Does the Internet need Censorship’ debate. As one of them expresses, “You should be allowed to do or say whatever you want without the government interfering.” Another participant argues, “The Internet was made to be free and so that anyone could share the ideology that they wish. By suppressing our right to share our ideas you’re suppressing our right to our freedom. Yes, I acknowledge the negatives but there is much more positives from freedom of speech than censorship.”
These statistics and opinions are indications that, like those globally, the people of Uttar Pradesh are divided on the issue of internet censorship. Both those for and against online censorship in India believed their respective approaches were best suited to the safeguarding public interests. This division over online censorship can be better understood in the words of a participant of the survey, “In a country like India having varied socio-cultural settings and educational levels people need protection to freely use Internet and in other side Internet also needs monitoring to ensure its safe and lawful use.”
Dr. Pradeep Kumar Misra is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Allied Sciences of M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly, India. His research specializations are Educational Technology, Teacher education and Lifelong Learning. Dr. Misra has received a number of prestigious international research scholarships that includes-Commonwealth Academic Fellowship of CSC, UK; Erasmus Mundus Visiting Scholar Scholarship of European Commission; Doctoral and Senior Researcher Scholarship of DAAD, Germany; and Research Exchange Scholarship of FMSH, France. Dr. Misra also served as a visiting scholar in Arhus University’s School of Education, Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009 for International Masters in Lifelong Learning: Policy and Management Programme. Dr. Misra has to his credit a number of publications in journals of national and international repute, authored a book ‘Educational Television in Germany’, completed R&D Projects and developed number of educational media programmes. Dr. Misra is also the founder member and Secretary of Society for Professional Development of Indian Teachers (SPDIT). His academic visits include- UK, Germany, New Zealand, Nederland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Vietnam and Malaysia. He regularly writes blogs and publishes useful educational contents on his website: www.technologyandteachers.com