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Is the government reading your email?

india Updated: Jun 19, 2009 21:40 IST
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It’s been a good week for Twitter. After the results of Iran’s presidential election came in, and ‘tweets’ of protest began emerging from that troubled land, the US State Department asked the Internet site to postpone a planned maintenance shutdown and allow the ‘voices’ to be heard. Iran, however, managed selective blocks of both Twitter and Facebook accounts. All this came in a week when The New York Times ran a story on the US National Security Agency monitoring domestic emails of Americans routinely without court warrants.

Closer home, Beijing unveiled plans to recruit 10,000 Internet censors by the year end to weed out ‘harmful’ content. India’s Internet remains uncensored but the revised Information Technology Act (IT Act) — which was amended without any debate in Parliament following the Mumbai terror attacks last year and notified in the Gazette in February this year — has some scary provisions. It allows, for example, for a designated agency of the government to monitor and collect traffic data or information generated, transmitted, received and stored in any computer. Another part of the same Section 69 allows government agencies to block websites which hitherto was done under a separate gazette notification but under a well laid out process.

Basically, this means any email can be monitored, or website blocked under certain well-defined circumstances, if the central government finds it necessary. The rules under which these provisions of the IT Act will work have now been offered for comments but they try to offer situations where censorship can be undertaken without any significant authority and then ratified within a week’s time. So despite a good track record, the government might end up censoring the Internet in times ahead although that is clearly not the political intent.

What all this goes to show is that the vast and untamed frontiers of the Internet are now increasingly coming under the rule of government regulation everywhere. Some countries throttle the basic Internet content to their citizens, others allow restricted content but employ surveillance tools to monitor Internet traffic, while a few others have stepped in with strong cyber laws. The points of such controls are at the levels of the Internet backbone at the national level, at the Internet service providers’ level, at institutional levels, and also at the individual computer level.

This last method is still the least implemented. It was recently tried by China, when that country announced that starting July 1, all new computers in the country would have to compulsorily run a monitoring software called ‘Green Dam Youth Escort’. Ostensibly, the job of this software would be to preserve the moral fibre of the country’s youth from Internet pornography. But hackers quickly discovered that the software would also restrict access to sites the Chinese government considers ‘politically sensitive’. And that it would open up a breach in the computer’s security that would allow remote users to take control of it. A storm of protest has forced the Chinese government to back off, for once. The software is now being described as optional instead of mandatory.

Self regulation is indeed best. Of course, one can’t expect terrorists to restrict their use of the Internet to peaceful purposes. For India, the government would do well to draw lessons from the rules and methods by which telephone taps are done, and apply them to the Internet.

(Subimal Bhattacharjee is currently country head of General Dynamics and writes on issues of cyberspace. The views expressed are personal)