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Net censorship: Is India too soft on Facebook, Twitter?

August 23, 2012 15:23 IST
As far as cyber laws go India should take a page from China's book, especially if national security is at stake, say experts.  Vicky Nanjappa reports

In an effort to stop rumour-mongering in the wake of the Assam violence and the exodus of the north-eastern community from various Indian cities the government began a crackdown on social media platforms -- blocking websites and several Twitter accounts.

And as the debate over the alleged abuse of the social media rages, there is an outrage over the government action. Not only have accounts of users spreading 'hate messages' been blocked, but also those that have slammed the government for their inept handling of the situation have been restricted. Several Twitter accounts have been blocked including two belonging to journalists.

But the government seems to have gotten into the damage control mode a tad too late. Pakistan has been blamed for circulating false reports and morphed images of alleged atrocities against the Muslim community in Assam and Myanmar. But these images and reports have been doing the rounds for over a month now.  

Blocking websites may be the government's solution but it's a temporary and ineffective one. Cleary, there is lack of political will, say cyber experts, as the government needs to take legal action if Pakistan is involved.  

According to cyber law expert Pavan Duggal, India has been soft on its intermediaries. As per the IT Act, social media and mobile service providers come under the category of an intermediary. The law clearly states that there needs to be due diligence and the parameters require social media companies to notify the users that their networks will not be used to publish and transmit any content that is against the integrity of a nation. "Despite this if somebody publishes such content and the government notifies these companies, they are required to act within 36 hours," Duggal points out.

It is clear under the Indian law and the IT Act that this law is applicable to any person of any nationality or any services that are within a network in India. This would mean that the intermediaries need to block accounts in 36 hours of being notified if the person is threatening the security of the country. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are all governed by this law in India. The law makes it clear that India does not need to plead to these companies if they fail to respond to the government. It reserves the right to prosecute these companies in such an event of non-compliance, he said.

"India needs to learn from China. The Chinese are clear that if they are targeted on cyber space, then the compliance will be as per their law itself. The argument that these companies are governed by the United States law will not hold good. The Indian government reserves the right to stop them if they do not comply," said Duggal. 

Now, here is what the law has to state where pseudo handles are concerned. Creating a pseudo handle violates Section 66 A of the IT Act and those found guilty are liable to undergo imprisonment for three years and also cough up a fine.

"When someone creates a pseudo handle say in the name of the prime minister's office, he will either have to mention it clearly that this is an unofficial account or a pseudo handle. In the alternate, he could also mention in every update or tweet that this is a pseudo handle. Now this is the law pertaining to the handle of a celebrity, authority or an organisation," said the expert.

However, there are also the generic handles in which a person conceals his identity and uses some other name. The Internet and the IT laws do provide for anonymity. This does not violate the law, but then again one must draw a line and ensure that the freedom of speech cannot be exploited.

According to experts, freedom of speech as far as the Internet goes needs to be protected and when there is a conflict between security and freedom of speech, the scales would obviously tilt in favour of defending national security. In simple terms it would mean that no matter what name you would tweet or update posts under, there should be a distinction between regular messages, abusive messages and also those disturbing national security.

Although the IT Act does provide for separate laws, the basic foundation is under the Constitution covering the freedom of speech. It is clearly stated that freedom of speech and expression should be tempered with appropriate and reasonable restriction, say experts.

"People need to appreciate that there is no absolute freedom of speech on the Internet and it is capable of restriction. Although you do have a right to be anonymous on the web, it still does not give you the liberty to give out hate speeches and be abusive," said Duggal.

Vicky Nanjappa