I first raised the issue of internet censorship in Parliament in March 2011, and I am mystified by the Centre’s approach towards the internet — it defies logic and is not consistent with the values of our republic and democracy.
There are three realities about India that we must remember, and it is sometimes worth reminding the government about them. First, India is a vibrant democracy with a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and liberty. Second, despite our problems, India’s democratic model is an aspirational one for many countries of the world; and third, the internet, apart from being an alternative media, is also a platform for innovation and vibrant entrepreneurship. We must keep all the three things in mind while examining the Centre’s attempts to regulate the internet.
Across the world, governments fear the internet — because it represents unfettered views, and unlike the conventional media, which is vulnerable to advertising and other forms of coercion, the internet is seen as ‘unmanageable’. And that pushes them to restrain this free and vibrant medium.
The Information Technology (Interme-diary Guidelines) Rules would pose a serious risk to our democracy and could be seen as legal intimidation of citizens and entrepreneurs by the government, established political and business interests and religious and cultural bigots. The Rules also violate the rights of freedom of speech and expression of the internet users, by providing for a system of censorship/self-censorship by private parties.
The Rules are riddled with weaknesses and ambiguities and are not good for a small internet consumers or entrepreneurs, but great for bureaucrats and large companies. For example, the Rules put discretion and power in the hands of individuals or large internet companies and they can be coerced. This is wrong. In a country where there is a due process of law and with a legislation like the IT Act, courts or tribunals should be deciding a case.
Many of the categories specified under the Rules are ambiguous. For example, the term ‘grossly harmful’ is not defined. Some of the categories of objectionable content may not meet the requirements of Article 19(2) and could infringe on the right to freedom of speech. The Rules are badly formulated and poorly drafted. Clearly, no stakeholders were consulted. The telecom minister has had over seven open houses — none of which discussed these Rules. There is no doubt that these Rules need to be changed. We need rules but they should be created after consulting the stakeholders. The government must engage and accept diverse views while making those guidelines, eliminate possibilities of misuse, either by the perpetrators, or by the government itself.
The government must annul these Rules and replace them with a set that we can be proud of and is consistent with the core values of our liberalism and democracy.
Another issue that’s rearing its ugly head relates to India’s position on internet governance at a global level. In October last year, the government moved a ridiculous proposal to shift the existing system by having 50 governments under the United Nations (UN) umbrella provide oversight to internet governance around the world. This is a dangerous view, probably propelled by those who have no idea whatsoever of how the internet works. The pretension that this is being done under the Tunis agenda is worrying. In fact, when this idea was first floated in 2005, Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General of the UN, was forced to distance himself from it.
At a time when the world is looking to India as the leading light of free speech, to make a proposal, which seeks government oversight over internet issues, takes our reputation back to the proverbial stone age of the internet.
The internet was not formed by the government and so it has no business policing it. To move from a multistakeholder-led governance system, which has broad representations from several countries, to a multilateral inter-governmental system, is regressive and can never make decisions which can match the speed of internet.
It is unclear who made this decision and what motivated it, but we should immediately abandon this proposal. We can’t be seen as a country insecure of free speech.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a Member of Parliament. The views expressed by the author are personal.