In the last few days, digital technology — in the form of short messaging services (SMS) and multimedia messaging services (MMS) — has shaken the foundation of this diverse country. Thanks to the publication of hate content on the internet, there have been riot-like situations in many parts of the country.
There were rumours of Muslim retaliation to the violence in Assam at the end of Ramzan, with threats of attacks on northeast Indians carried on social media and phone text messages. As a result, more than 30,000 migrants from the northeast working in cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad rushed in terror back to their homes. Last week, the home ministry said most of the text messages and website images originated in Pakistan. Islamabad rejected the suggestion as "baseless and unfounded". Significantly, it is not only content from across the border that the Union government needs to worry about: it also has to act on spurious content uploaded from India.
To contain the damage created by such hate content, the Union government has already blocked 250 websites and closed down more than 80 social media accounts. But can such action be a long-term solution since it is difficult to restrict the free flow of such content and there is no editorial control on what is being uploaded on the internet?
In India, cyberspace is governed by the Information Technology Act, 2000, which was amended in 2008. The revised law introduced provisions for monitoring and intercepting (Section 69) and blocking of content (Section 69A)and also defined the role of intermediaries like social networking sites under Section 79.
This was followed by notifying rules in October 2009 that prescribed well-defined procedures for such monitoring or blocking. Then again in April 2011, the government notified Rules for the Intermediaries. The Rules became controversial because some sections misinterpreted a particular provision which talked of ‘acting on objectionable content within 36 hours’. Many mistakenly thought that it meant offensive content would have to be removed in 36 hours.
Suddenly they were advocating that the balance between users’ rights and security concerns was being disturbed. Many of these people had failed to recognise the situation that has arisen now: without any editorial discretion, anyone can post any content, including those on sensitive issues, and trigger a national crisis.
In a recently held open house by the minister for information technology and communications, all these issues were explained to the stakeholders and the matter has been set right.
In dealing with the role of content supplied from external sources, the current recourse is blocking of such content as globally there is no binding multi-lateral law to address cyberspace.
While there are some bilateral agreements between countries in place to try cyber offences, there is no such arrangement between India and Pakistan, and going by our past experience, including the response to the Mumbai 26/11 attack investigations, not much will be done to stop uploading of such content.
On the other hand, cyber abuse would be a handy tool for the nation and its many non-State actors to create problems in India. The Indian government should definitely flag this issue in the next round of the United Nations-sponsored 20-nation Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on cyberspace.
Needless to say, the Union government has to act and approach the subject much more extensively as part of the yet to be announced national cyber security policy and during its future global engagements on security.
Subimal Bhattacharjee heads a multinational corporation in India and writes on issues of technology and security. The views expressed by the author are personal.