India’s Battle for Freedom in Cyberspace

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India’s Battle for Freedom in Cyberspace

The arrest of two young women over Facebook comments has renewed a much needed debate over internet censorship.

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).

The argument for internet regulation or censorship in India has mostly been framed in the context of ensuring national security and secular harmony. Efforts at regulation increased in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and subsequent tightening of national security. While some see these arguments as justified given India’s experience with terrorism and history of ethnic and religious tension, many civil society and internet activists feel that the government’s attempts at regulation go too far, infringing on peoples’ right to free speech and expression.

In recent months, there has been a spate of arrests across the country for content posted by users on social networking sites. In West Bengal, a chemistry professor was arrested for sharing an unflattering cartoon of Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee and other political figures online. In Tamil Nadu, businessman Ravi Srinivasan was arrested for a tweet criticizing the son of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. In Mumbai, political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of sedition for a series of anti-corruption cartoons that criticized the government. In each case, arrests were made under a controversial section of the Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act). Under Section 66A, individuals may be sentenced for up to three years in jail for posting information that is “false,” “grossly offensive,” “menacing,” insulting, or designed to incite hatred or ill will. Lawyers and internet activists have argued that the law is vague in defining terms such as “offensive” and “menacing” and needs to be amended. Last week, a young student in Delhi filed a public interest litigation case in the Supreme Court arguing that Section 66A is unconstitutional and infringes on the right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution.

India’s role in spurring the global internet revolution is widely recognized. Indian companies in the silicon cities of Bengaluru and Hyderabad are international exporters of internet technology, and Indian engineers and programmers have played key roles in companies such as Intel, Cisco, Google, Oracle, Google, and Facebook. Closer to home, civil society groups, activists, and social movements have innovatively used the internet and social media platforms to combat corruption and bribery, redress grievances, and demand improvements in service delivery and governance more broadly. Initiatives such as Ipaidabribe.com, for example, provide Indians with an opportunity to file online reports of official bribery. Similarly, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign last summer used Facebook and Twitter to generate public support against corruption. However, recent incidents in India have raised difficult questions about the regulation of social media and consequently free speech in the digital commons. Spurred by media and civil society pressure, the government is now mulling changes to the IT Act. However, it is evident that changes in policy need to be accompanied by a much broader and more nuanced debate among the government, civil society, media, and internet providers.

Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. This piece initially appeared on The Asia Foundation’s In Asia blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.