India's Internet community is upset over a recent set of rules under the country's Information Technology Act of 2008 that aims to regulate content on the Web. Used as to much freedom as they are, cyber activists – who include bloggers, tweeters and free-thinking Net freaks – are understandably upset.
The rules say that anything libelous, grossly harmful, hateful, racist or ethnically objectionable or disparaging will be covered by the rules. The description is actually much longer, but suffice it to say that its width gives enough room for anyone with a mild imagination to see something as chargeable under the law.
In principle, I am all for responsible publishing but there are several issues that need to be addressed in this instance. First, in India there is so special guarantee of the freedom of the press/media. The press enjoys no more or less leeway than the average citizen under the fundamental right of the "freeom of speech and expression."
In this context, it is always best to view anything on the Internet as subject to similar expectations of responsibility.
But the problem lies in policing. Given the cultural diversity and political democracy in India, a robust debate is not possible on the Net if there are people who judge what is right or not at the level of a ministry or a government department. By widening the definition and giving teeth to the government, the Information Technology (intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011, creates the prospect of an "Inspector Raj" in the new media, which seems to threaten free expression.
More significantly, the government expects intermediaries that include portals, telecom operators, search engines, service providers and even cybercafés to be accountable for the content.
This is patently authoritarian. Given the free flow of peer-to-peer communication and community experiences on the Internet, holding intermediaries responsible is a bit like holding a hotel owner responsible for bedroom acts behind closed doors. If there is a violation of law, police can intervene, but shifting the onus to intermediaries is stretching it too far.
Above all, there is a simple question: why should the IT ministry govern content? That should logically be under the information and broadcasting ministry. This is a point for policy-makers to mull over.
In television, the News Broadcasters Association has taken steps recently to regulate content. A similar self-regulatory initiative among Web publishers and bloggers will make more sense than intervention from above.