Reporters Without Borders is worried about the threats to online free expression in a new set of regulations on Internet usage, called “IT Rules 2011,” which have been issued last month by the ministry of information technology and communications.
Ever since the 2008 bombings in Mumbai, the Indian authorities have been tightening Internet surveillance and legislation, including the 2000 Information Technology Act. While protecting national security is essential, it should not be at the expense of online free speech and the protection of the personal data of Internet users.
Reporters Without Borders calls on the government and parliament to reconsider the new regulations.
Turning service providers into Internet policemen
The new rules require Internet companies to withdraw offensive content – including content that is “obscene,” “harassing,” "libellous,” “hateful,” “harms minors” or “infringes copyright” – within 36 hours of being notified by the authorities or risk prosecution. Social networks and Internet access providers must state that such content is banned in their terms of services.
This has the effect of turning technical intermediaries such as telecom companies, access providers, social networks and search engines into police auxiliaries and Web censors. The definition of illegal content is very vague.
There has been strong criticism of the rules from the companies affected. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) says they will hamper the development of social network in India. “The rules seem to step on the statutory side, biased towards the complainant,” an IAMAI spokesman said.” Even before a case is filed in court, the website has to take down the content. It might harm freedom of speech on the Internet.”
A Google spokesman told Reporters Without Borders: “We believe that a free and open Internet is essential for the growth of digital economy and safeguarding freedom of expression. If Internet platforms are held liable for third party content, it would lead to self-censorship and reduce the free flow of information. The regulatory framework should ideally help protect Internet platforms and people’s abilities to access information.”
The government rejected the criticism on 11 May, insisting that it remained “fully committed to freedom of speech and expression and the citizen’s rights.”
Draconian new rules for Internet cafés
From now on, Internet café operators will have to keep a copy of each client’s identity document for a year. They will also have to photograph their clients and keep their web browsing history from each visit. This data will have to be sent to the government each month.
The regulations go so far as to tell Internet cafés how they should be furnished, including the size and orientation of the stands on which computers are placed in order to ensure that the screens can be monitored.
The police are no longer responsible for supervising Internet cafés. This duty has now been transferred to the representatives of the agency that registers them.
Smartphone and VoIP under pressure
The authorities have meanwhile for months been harassing Research In Motion, the BlackBerry smartphone’s Canadian manufacturer, for access to the BlackBerry’s encrypted services.
The interior ministry, which is responsible for national security, is trying to get real-time access to all BlackBerry communications, including its corporate email service, called BlackBerry Enterprise Server. RIM insists that it does not have access to the encryption keys used by BES clients.
The government is reportedly also planning to ask Google and Skype to provide it with a way to monitor their Internet telephony (VoIP) services. Last September, the interior minister warned that it might force RIM, Google and Skype to set up servers in India in order to facilitate surveillance by the security agencies.