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

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. 

Presented by

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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