India’s Internet Freedom Nightmare

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India’s Internet Freedom Nightmare

India has called out Facebook, Twitter and Google over what it deems to be “objectionable” online content. With recent violence powered through social media, can balance be found?

Coming on the heels of a series of legal and political confrontations with the world’s largest and most prominent Internet companies, the Indian government has once again become embroiled in a struggle with Facebook, Twitter, and Google over what it deems to be “objectionable” online content.

Before, when the government and the powerful Internet companies faced-off last spring, there were only important matters of Internet privacy and speech, as well as government power, at issue. This time, however, it is not only freedom of expression that is at stake, but lives as well.

On Tuesday, Indian officials pressed the companies to remove certain “inflammatory” material, which the government contends contributed to the recent nationwide panic resulting in tens of thousands of people fleeing from some of India’s largest cities. The government has already successfully blocked or taken down at least 300 webpages hosted by the online service providers, and is threatening to take further legal action against the social media companies if they fail to comply with additional take-down requests.

The trouble began when threatening messages containing images of mutilated bodies began appearing on Indian cell phones, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. The graphic images and accompanying text and emails – which Indian Home Secretary R.K. Singh has argued originated in Pakistan – warned that Indian Muslims were planning to attack non-Muslims from India’s northeast region.  These attacks, it was said, were intended as retaliation for Muslim deaths that occurred as part of an ongoing dispute between Bengali Muslims and indigenous Bodo tribespeople in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. The Assam violence, which is rooted in a decades-long dispute over land, ethnicity, jobs, and political power, has claimed over 70 lives and caused over 300,000 people to flee their homes since July.

The text and social media messages set off widespread panic among northeasterners working and studying in cities across south India, who feared they would be targeted for revenge attacks. Consequently tens of thousands of northeasterners hurriedly boarded buses and trains heading back home to escape what they believed to be an imminent massacre of non-Muslims.

The panic has now largely subsided, following a number of arrests and the deployment of additional security forces to Assam and the affected southern cities.

But the government is still showing concern, and has decided to hold the social media companies that hosted the threatening messages partly accountable.  On August 19th, India’s Secretary for Telecommunications, R. Chandrashekhar, even hinted that Facebook and Twitter could face legal action for their unwillingness or inability to take down online material, or to trace the violent messages’ origins, as quickly as the government had demanded. Twitter, it was suggested, might even be shut down in India entirely.

This latest government effort to control content offered by social media has already rekindled India’s increasingly heated Internet censorship debate, a debate that took on new momentum in April 2011, when the government introduced a new set of controversial telecommunications rules that set strict limits on “offensive” content, such as provocative religious or political cartoons and statements.

Over the last week, Internet freedom advocates have viewed the government’s demands in response to the Assam violence with some skepticism, worrying that government is simply using the crisis as a pretext to implement the controversial policies. The New York Times reported that Indian civil society groups were already suggesting that the government demand that all Internet “intermediaries” – the companies that provide Internet access, host online content, websites, or search services – disable all content that was “inflammatory, hateful and inciting violence,” was unreasonable, even in light of the current crisis.

The United States, which in the last few years has found itself seriously at odds with India over Internet regulatory issues, was likewise quick to condemn (albeit subtly) the Indian government’s actions in response to the panic. “As the Indian government seeks to preserve security, we are urging them also to take into account the importance of freedom of expression in the online world,” Victoria Nuland, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, stated on Thursday.

Certainly, the concerns of civil society groups and their Western allies are real.  India has indeed sought to restrict Internet content recently, for sometimes trivial reasons and often to accomplish narrow political objectives. And in the current crisis, it appears, the actions of the government may in fact be pre-textual: the Indian Express reports that of the 245 webpages that the government blocked in the initial phase of the crisis, no more than one-fifth made any reference to the people of the northeast or the recent violence in Assam.  In the same vein, the Times of India notes that many of the government’s censorship actions in the last few days have been directed at critics of the government and its ministers, not at those who threaten harm to northeasterners.

Despite these concerns, one ought not to view India’s response to the serious and potentially deadly events of the past week simplistically: the actions of the government were neither wholly justified nor entirely reprehensible.  While the Indian government’s behavior in the crisis has been anything but morally pure and politically neutral, the fact remains that someone—perhaps inspired by Pakistan, perhaps with a more narrow axe to grind—is attempting to subject a very large and susceptible population to terror, and has had dreadful success in that attempt.

In the wake of recent government suppression of the Internet in Iran, Syria, China and elsewhere, it is natural for those with an interest in Internet freedom to be concerned with the direction that India appears heading towards. In recent days, Indians themselves have drawn parallels between the recent spate of government censorship and India’s short-lived experience with authoritarianism during Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” from 1975 to 1977, when the Prime Minister suspended, among other rights, many of the constitutional protections for speech.

But the fact of the matter is that no responsible government can permit its population to be victimized in this fashion. The protection of vulnerable populations takes on extraordinary importance in India given the country’s bloody history of intercommunal violence, from India’s founding in 1947 and the killing fields of Partition, to the Babri Masjid massacres of 1992 and the Gujarat riots of 2002.

The Indian government has undoubtedly taken an aggressive stand against what it considers to be a persistent threat to both the cohesiveness and the peace of its society. And since it is through the Internet that the threat is being waged, the government has little choice but to focus its response on the Internet.

It is disappointing to see that the Indian government has appeared to have exploited, at least in part, the Assam violence and the recent panic to advance a censorship regime it has sought to implement for some time now. And those who favor Internet freedom, both in India and abroad, have a right to hold India accountable for its willingness to restrict free expression on less than essential and meritorious grounds.

But at the same time the Indian government, for its part, has a right to expect those same supporters of Internet freedom to acknowledge that there is a fundamental national interest at stake in protecting the Indian people from those who would use the Internet as a weapon.  And if that means temporarily curtailing Internet freedoms, it is entirely appropriate for the government to do so.

It is the delicate task of India’s leadership, for whom liberty and peace are equally compelling national interests, to impose the least restrictive limits reasonably likely to accomplish the fundamental objective of protecting its people.  We shall soon discover if there is sufficient competence and good faith among that leadership to set those limits.

Jonah Force Hill is an International Affairs Consultant and a former Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He has served at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and at the National Economic Council at the White House.