India: The New Front Line in the Global Struggle for Internet Freedom

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The government tussles with Internet freedom activists in the world's largest democracy.

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Demonstrators hold placards and flowers outside the home of India's IT minister in a December 2011 protest against new Internet regulations. (AP)

This Saturday, Indian Internet freedom advocates are planning to stage a nation-wide protest against what they see as their government's increasingly restrictive regulation of the Internet. An amorphous alliance of concerned citizens and activist hackers intend to use the streets and the Internet itself to make their opposition felt. 

Over the last year, as Americans were focused on the domestic debates surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), or on the more brazen displays of online censorship by mainstays of Internet restriction like China, Iran and Pakistan, India was rapidly emerging as a key battleground in the worldwide struggle for Internet freedom.

The confrontation escalated in April 2011, when the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology introduced sweeping new rules regulating the nature of material that Internet companies could host online. In response, civil liberties groups, Internet freedom supporters, and a growing assembly of online activist hackers have been fighting back, initiating street protests, organizing online petitions, and launching -- under the banner of the "Anonymous" hacker group -- a torrent of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against Indian government and industry web sites. 

The April 2011 rules, an update to India's Information Technology Act (IT Act) of 2000 (amended in 2008), popularly known as the "intermediary guidelines," instruct online "intermediaries" -- companies that provide Internet access, host online content, websites, or search services -- to remove, within 36 hours, any material deemed to be "grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous," "ethnically objectionable," or "disparaging" by any Internet user who submits a formal objection letter to that intermediary. Under the guidelines, any resident of India can compel Google, at the risk of criminal and/or civil liability, to remove content from its site that the resident finds politically, religiously, or otherwise "objectionable." 

Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal -- the intermediary guidelines' most important government evangelist, and the head of the agency responsible for administering the guidelines -- even instructed Internet companies to go one step further and start pre-screening content for removal before it was flagged by concerned users.  This requires companies like Facebook, in effect, to determine what material might offend its users and thus violate Indian law, and then remove it from the website. With over 100 million Internet users in India, no company could possibly monitor all its content through human intervention alone; web companies would have to set up filters and other mechanisms to take down potentially objectionable content more or less automatically. 

India's constitution, in large part crafted in response to the modern country's harrowing history of religious and communal violence, allows for "reasonable restrictions" on free speech. Indian officials have at times banned certain books, movies, or other materials touching on such sensitive subjects as religion and caste. 

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Left with little choice but to comply or risk legal action, Google, Yahoo!, and other Internet companies acquiesced and began pulling down webpages after receiving requests to do so. Yet many companies refused to remove all the content requested, prompting Mufti Aijaz Arshad Qasm, an Islamic scholar, and journalist Vinay Rai, respectively, to file civil and criminal suits against 22 of the largest Internet companies operating in India. The targets, including Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and Microsoft, were accused of failing to remove material deemed to be offensive to the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus, several Hindu gods and goddesses, and various political leaders. 

The companies have had some success in the litigation: Google India, Yahoo!, and Microsoft have all been dropped from the civil case after the court heard preliminary arguments; the Delhi High Court recently dismissed Microsoft from the criminal case.  Otherwise, both cases are still ongoing.

India has taken its Internet regulation internationally, asking the United States government to ensure that India-specific objectionable content is removed from sites such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube, and suggesting that these companies should be asked to relocate their servers to India in to order better to regulate the content locally.

The Indian government's state-centric view of Internet regulation and governance is also clear in their approach to international governance. Citing the need for more governmental input in the Internet's development and what happens online, India formally proposed the creation of the Committee for Internet Related Policies (CIRP) at the 2011 United Nations General Assembly. The CIRP would be an entirely new multilateral UN body responsible for coordinating virtually all Internet governance functions, including multilateral treaties. 

To be fair, some Indians see these as efforts not to impose censorship but to allow a greater degree of Indian and international control over a system considered by many in India and elsewhere to be under the thumb of the U.S. government. 

Yet some Internet experts in both India and the West are criticizing the CIRP proposal as part of "thinly masked efforts to control or shape the Internet," as one Indian official put it. They warn that a state-centric system of Internet governance could lead to serious restrictions on the type of information available online, and damage the Internet's potential for innovation.

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Anonymous' signature Guy Fawkes mask painted in the Indian flag. (Anonymous "OpIndia" website)

India's Internet freedom advocates are straining to keep up with the rapid pace of the last year.  But, now, they're gathering some steam. Online petitions against the intermediary guidelines, the IT Act, and censorship in India in general have appeared on Change.org and Facebook; protest videos are popping up on Youtube. The Centre for Internet and Society, a web-focused think tank, released an extensive report highlighting the intermediary guidelines' effects on freedom online. The Internet Democracy Project organized a day-long training program on freedom of expression and censorship for bloggers entitled "Make Blog not War." FreeSoftware Movement Karnataka organized a protest of hundreds of students in Bangalore, India's IT hub. And Save Your Voice activists held a sit in outside Delhi's Jantar Mantar monument to pressure lawmakers.

Yet, not all the opposition has been so civil. Hackers, operating under the umbrella of the techno-libertarian hacker community, "Anonymous," are waging their own, less lawful fight against the government as well as the Internet companies that have, in their view, too readily complied with the government's censorship demands. 

On May 17, Anonymous hackers attacked a number of Indian government websites, including the Indian Supreme Court, the Reserve Bank of India, the ruling Congress Party and its coalition partners, as well as the opposition Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), making them all inaccessible for several hours. 

Moreover, just this past week, Anonymous broke into the websites and servers of a number of Internet Service Providers, including Reliance Communications, seemingly to punish them for complying with government orders to block file-sharing hosts such as Pirate Bay and Vimeo. Once in the ISPs' servers, the hackers accessed their lists of blocked sites -- which they then distributed to media outlets. They also redirected people who tried to reach Reliance's site to an Anonymous protest page. 

Building on the momentum of these attacks, and on the anti-censorship outrage growing across India, Anonymous has called for a national day of protest in 11 Indian cities this Saturday, and an additional series online attacks against government and industry websites. The occupy-style protests -- which Anonymous insists will be non-violent -- are to include awareness campaigns on Facebook and other social networking sites. Protesters are being asked to don the Guy Fawkes mask, a symbol now associated with Anonymous, among other protest movements, both in the streets and on their Facebook profiles.

It's unclear how much support the June 9 protest will receive, or how serious the planned Anonymous attacks with be, but given the attention that the announcement has attracted in the Indian media, it seems likely that people will at least be paying attention. And even if this weekend the protest fails to attract the type of large and vocal response protest organizers are hoping it will, that it's come so far is an indication that neither side looks ready to back down.

Still, the government has given some small signs recently that it is reconsidering its position on the "intermediary guidelines," if not on Internet regulation more generally. Information Technology Minister Sibal, under pressure from the political opposition and after Parliament Member P. Rajeeve tabled a motion to seek rescission of the new rules, indicated that he would reconsider his previous positions, and the government has agreed to reexamine the rules. 

This is an encouraging sign, although it's unlikely that any government action will come in time to forestall this weekend's protests. But even if the intermediary guidelines are ultimately rescinded, India will likely continue its soul-searching on how it deals with the Internet.

As the world's largest democracy and a model for much of the developing world, and with an Internet population anticipated to surpass that of the United States in the next few years, India is an important, maybe the most important, test case for the future of Internet freedom globally. Should India continue down a course of restriction, other nations eager to restrict online speech could see precedent to impose their own technical and political barriers to free expression online. It would be a tragic irony if India, as one of the developing world's greatest beneficiaries of the information revolution, ended up curbing those same free flows of information and ideas.

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Jonah Force Hill, an international and global affairs fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has lived and worked in India.

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