India's Battle for Freedom in Cyberspace
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India's Battle for Freedom in Cyberspace

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India’s online community has been buzzing since the arrest of two young women by the Mumbai police last month for posting comments on Facebook criticizing the city’s shutdown following the death of veteran Shiv Sena leader, Bal Thackeray. The arrests of Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan sparked public outrage across the country, and drew criticism from civil society, media, and the government. Telecom Minister Kabil Sibal described the arrests as “unfortunate,” and renowned Indian personalities, such as author Shobha De, anti-corruption activist turned politician, Arvind Kejriwal, and others, expressed their dismay on Twitter. Faced with mounting public ire, the Mumbai police eventually suspended the officers who made the arrests and dropped the case against Dhada and Srinivasan. The arrests triggered a vigorous public debate that rages today about the right to freedom of speech and expression, and the extent to which the government can or should regulate the internet.

India is the fastest growing internet market among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) nations, according to a recent study by Assocham and ComScore, expanding annually at the rate of 41 percent, with approximately 125 million internet users currently. Nearly 75 percent of these users are between the ages of 15 and 34, making India’s online community one of the youngest in the world. While internet penetration is still low (less than 10 percent of the population), social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are becoming increasingly popular as mobile phone penetration deepens across the country. From a small user base of 8 million in 2010, Facebook today has 50 million subscribers in India, with the number growing each day. Indians are generating a growing volume of user content as they like, post, tag, tweet, and blog online. Some of this content has the Indian government worried.

As I wrote in an earlier post to In Asia, India’s government has dramatically increased its oversight and surveillance of the internet and social media platforms over the last two years. In April 2011, it adopted a new set of IT rules requiring websites and service providers to respond to netizen requests to remove content deemed “blasphemous,” “disparaging,” or “hateful” within 36 hours of the complaint being filed. Later in the year, the government filed cases against 21 companies, including internet giants like Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google, demanding the removal of objectionable and inflammatory material and the “pre-screening” of user content. According to Google’s latest Transparency Report, between January and June 2012, Indian authorities also sought web user details in as many as 2,319 cases and requested the removal of 596 items from various internet platforms, a more than 100% jump over the previous six months. The items related primarily to issues of privacy and security (374), defamation (120), and religious offences (75).

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