Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Indian censorship

The Indian government is putting an end to freedom of speech online. A variety of content that the government finds objectionable can now be censored for Indians surfing the web. This is a surprising development. I would highly recommend reading through the full statement of regulations so you know what the new rules are. The full rules are far reaching, and go beyond censorship. In addition to the censorship on the Internet, there are some big limitations on computer use:
  1. The list of violations is vague: anything that could be "harassing", "pornographic", "disparaging".  Half of what I write here could be considered disparaging.
  2. Websites have to keep identity information, and provide it to law enforcement for these violations. So Twitter needs to know who is posting "disparaging" tweets.
  3. Websites collecting sensitive data (even sexual orientation is considered sensitive) need to allow users to review information being collected, and offer them a way of deleting this sensitive information. This might be a good thing, but many websites like Facebook retain user information even after the account is suspended. This practice would be illegal under Indian law.
  4. All cyber-cafes need to be registered. All of them need to validate the identity of the users. All terminals have to be publicly visible: they cannot be hidden. All cybercafes need to keep a log of websites visited by the users. This is far-reaching and impossible to implement. How practical can identity verification be in a country where you can obtain a fake driving license?
When people look at China, it is easy to criticize their censorship, which is a lot more repressive. I used to think that this is impossible in a true democracy. After this development, I don't know what to think. Either this is possible in a true democracy or that India isn't a true democracy.

We can guess the reasons behind this regulation. I suspect the government needed some ways of logging cyber-cafe activity after the terrorist attacks in Bombay. Much like the concern about open Wi-Fi access points, this is a knee-jerk reaction.  Unlawful activity will effortlessly move elsewhere: unlawful elements will find a cyber-cafe owner who is happy to accept a bribe to allow a few of his "friends" to use the computers without identity, and without logging their activity.  In the past months, we have witnessed the corruption within the government. It wouldn't be surprising if the first law-breakers are elected representatives.

The wording could be vague for a good reason: the government wants to cast as wide a net as possible.  Even encouraging gambling is illegal under the new rules.  Maybe they want to be able to nail everyone. Another possibility is simpler: it is just poorly worded, and there's no ulterior motive. We'll have to wait to find out.

I wonder if there are motives behind the timing. Even accounting for the slow-moving Indian government, the timing on this could point to a worried government. The economic miracle hasn't helped everyone, and the lower middle class and lower class is untouched by the explosion in tech-related jobs. The inflation has hit them the hardest, especially in rising food prices. The last few months have exposed a lot of corruption within the government, which has led to resentment and disillusionment. Finally, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries are undergoing radical democratic changes, most of which was organized online, largely anonymously. This is a good time to clamp down on harmful free speech online, under the pretext of curbing unlawful activity. The Chinese government has felt some of these changes too, so it isn't a stretch that the Indian government is worried.