September 19, 2020

India Feels a Chill Over New Rules on Web Speech

MUMBAI — Free speech advocates and Internet users are protesting new Indian regulations that seek to restrict Web content that, among other things, could be considered “disparaging,” “harassing,” “blasphemous” or “hateful.”

The new rules
, issued by the Indian Department of Information Technology this month without much publicity, allow officials and private citizens to demand that Internet sites and service providers remove content that they consider objectionable by drawing from a long list of reasons.

Critics say that the new regulations could severely curtail debate and discussion on the Internet, use of which has been growing quickly in India. The list of objectionable content is sweeping and, for instance, includes anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order.”

The rules highlight the ambivalence with which Indian officials have long treated freedom of expression. The country’s Constitution allows “reasonable restrictions” on free speech, but lawmakers have periodically stretched that definition to ban books, movies and other material about sensitive subjects like sex, politics and religion.

An Indian state recently banned a new book
by an American author on the Indian freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi that critics have argued disparages the leader by describing his relationship with another man.

Fewer than 10 percent of Indians have access to the Internet, but that number has been growing quickly, especially on mobile devices. There are more than 700 million cellphone accounts in India. The country has also established a thriving technology industry that writes software and creates Web services, primarily for Western clients.

Even before the new rules — known as the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 — India has periodically tried to restrict speech on the Internet. In 2009, the government banned a popular and graphic online comic strip, “Savita Bhabhi,” about a housewife with an active sex life. Indian officials have also forced social networking sites like Orkut to take down posts that offended ethnic and religious groups.

Using a freedom of information law, the Center for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based research and advocacy group, recently obtained and published a list of 11 Web sites
banned by the Department of Information Technology. Other government agencies have probably blocked more sites, the group said.

The new Internet rules go further than existing Indian laws and restrictions, said Sunil Abraham, the executive director for the Center for Internet and Society. The rules require Internet “intermediaries” — an all-encompassing group that includes sites like YouTube and Facebook and companies that are host to Web sites or that provide Internet connections — to respond to any demand to take down offensive content within 36 hours. The rules do not offer a way for content producers to defend their work.

“These rules overly favor those who want to clamp down on freedom of expression,” Mr. Abraham said. “Whenever there are limits of freedom of expression, in order for those limits to be considered constitutionally valid, those limits have to be clear and not be very vague. Many of these rules that seek to place limits are very, very vague.”

An official for the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, an advocacy group based in New Delhi, said Wednesday that it was considering a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the new rules.

“What are we, Saudi Arabia?” said Pushkar Raj, the group’s general secretary. “We don’t expect this from India. This is something very serious.”

Gulshan Rai, an official at the Department of Information Technology, did not return calls and messages.

The rules are based on a 2008 information technology law that the Indian Parliament passed shortly after a three-day battle in Mumbai with Pakistan-based terrorists in which more than 160 people were killed. Among other things, that law granted the authorities more expansive powers to monitor electronic communications on national security grounds. It also granted privacy protections to consumers.

While advocates for free speech and civil liberties have complained that the 2008 law goes too far in violating the rights of Indians, Internet firms have expressed support for it. The law removed liability from Internet intermediaries as long as they were not active participants in creating content that was later deemed to be offensive.

Subho Ray, the president of the Internet and Mobile Association of India, which represents companies like Google and eBay, said that change had been a big improvement over a previous law that had been used to hold intermediaries liable for being host to content created by others. In 2004, for instance, the police arrested eBay’s top India executive because a user of the company’s Indian auction site had offered to sell a video clip of a teenage couple having sex.

“The new I.T. Act (2008) is, in fact, a large improvement on the old one,” Mr. Ray said in an e-mail response to questions. He said his association had not taken a stance on the new regulations.

An India-based spokeswoman for Google declined to comment on the new rules, saying the company needed more time to respond.

Along with the new content regulations, the government also issued rules governing data security, Internet cafes and the electronic provision of government services.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=4fe8a689679a2d0a16b432b63e1241af

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