Large swathes of online content are disappearing, and the losses are far more difficult to reverse than the mere blocking of a website,
says KETAN TANNA, analyst of the India section of the Freedom House report on Freedom on the Net 2012, released last week.
300? 400? 500+? Take your pick. No one really has a firm idea of how many URLS, websites, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts have been blocked by the Indian authorities in the aftermath of the Assam riots and the exodus of North East Indians from various parts of India. For that matter, nobody has an idea of how many of the blocked sites, URLs, accounts are back in action.
And yet, even before the Assam violence, the Indian government has steadily beefed up its resolve in controlling our net freedom. What began as a downward spiral following the 2008 Mumbai terror attack and the passing of Information Technology Act 2000 and the amendments has taken ominous portent as the Indian government has armed itself with unreasonable powers.
A reflection of the downward spiral in the freedom on the net that Indians enjoy is evident in the upward revision of scores for India in the Freedom On the Net(FOTN) 2012 report released by Washington based Freedom House (www.freedomhouse.org) on September 25, 2012 (click here to access the India report).
The overall score for India was 36 in 2011 and its 39 in 2012. Each addition to the score means deterioration in the overall freedom. The index aims to capture the entire â€œenabling environmentâ€ for internet freedom within each country through a set of 21 methodology questions, divided into three subcategories, which are intended to highlight the vast array of relevant issues. Each individual question is scored on a varying range of points.
The report reveals that India was one of the only 4 of the 20 countries that â€œrecently experienced declinesâ€ and are electoral democracies. The other three are Mexico, Turkey and South Korea. The report has mentioned that in India, â€œamid several court cases regarding intermediariesâ€™ responsibility for hosting illegal content and new guidelines requiring intermediaries to remove objectionable content within 36 hours of notice, much evidence has surfaced that intermediaries are taking down content without fully evaluating or challenging the legality of the requestâ€.
The report draws attention to the silent censorship prevalent on the internet. â€œAs a result of such dynamics, large swaths of online content are disappearing, and the losses are far more difficult to reverse than the mere blocking of a websiteâ€ the report adds.
Bangalore based The Centre for Internet and Society on its website has of August 22, 2012 calculated that â€œ309 specific items (URLs, Twitter accounts, img tags, blog posts, blogs, and a handful of websites) have been blockedâ€. Officially, the government has admitted to blocking â€œ245 web Pages for Inflammatory Content hosting of Provocative and Harmful Contentâ€. (http://www.pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=86355)
â€œKeeping in view the sensitivity and need for restoring peace, harmony and public order, the Government on recommendation of Ministry of Home Affairs issued orders under section 69A of the Information Technology Act 2000 directing intermediaries including international social networking sites to block 76 web pages on 18.08.2012, 80 web pages on 19.8.2012 and 89 web pages on 20.8.2012. These intermediaries and international social networking sites were also requested to provide registration details and access logs of the person who uploaded such contentâ€, the government revealed in the press note.
And that is not the last of what we have heard. Hundreds of other URLs, sites, Facebook accounts have been blocked in the days after the release. The government has not as yet, given details of the sum total. Nikhil Pahwa, Editor of medianama.com had filed a RTI asking the government for finer details more than a month ago. The government is still sitting on it. â€œPeople need to know what has been blocked, why it has been blocked, who has taken the decision to block it, and what is the process of getting the block removedâ€ says Pahwa.
That the Indian government is serious about arming itself and controlling the internet access of Indians is evident from the Economic Times report of August 21, 2012 which said that the government has asked â€œISPs and mobile phone firms to build ’embedded technologies’ that will enable it to ban social media and other websites in specific geographiesâ€. The Economic Times report says the embedded technology move is a result of the logic given by the telecommunication companies that said they lacked the technology to bar websites on a state-by-state basis.
Salient features of the Freedom on the Net report 2012
Despitethenotedimprovements,restrictionsoninternetfreedomcontinuetoexpandacrossa widerangeofcountries.Overthepastdecade,governmentshavedevelopedanumberofeffective toolstocontroltheinternet.Theseincludelimitingconnectivityandinfrastructure,blockingand filteringcontentthatiscriticaloftheregime,andarrestinguserswhopost informationthatis deemedundesirable.In2011and2012,certainmethodsthatwerepreviouslyemployedonlyinthe most oppressive environments became more widely utilized.
Tocounterthegrowinginfluenceofindependentvoicesonline,anincreasingnumberofstatesare turningtoproactivemanipulationofwebcontent,renderingitmorechallengingforregularusers todistinguishbetweencredibleinformationand governmentpropaganda.Regimesarecovertly hiringarmiesofpro-governmentbloggerstotouttheofficialpointofview, discreditopposition activists,ordisseminatefalseinformationaboutunfoldingevents.Thispracticewasinthepast largely limitedtoChinaandRussia,butoverthelastyear,ithasbeenadoptedinmorethana quarterofthecountriesexamined.TheBahrainiauthorities,forexample,haveemployedhundreds ofâ€œtrollsâ€whoseresponsibilityistoscoutpopulardomesticandinternationalwebsites,andwhile posingasordinaryusers,attackthecredibilityofthosewhopostinformationthatreflectspoorlyon the government.
Bothphysicalandtechnicalattacksagainstonlinejournalists,bloggers,andcertaininternetusers havealsobeenontherisein2011and2012,demonstratingthatthetacticspreviouslyusedagainst opposition journalists are now being applied to those writing in the online sphere as well. Moreover, theattacks have become more violent. In Azerbaijan, for example, a prominent journalistandcontributortoseveralonlinenewssitesdiedofstabwoundsafterbeingattackedby unknownassailants.InMexico,forthefirsttime,individualswhohadcirculatedinformationonline aboutorganizedcrimeandcorruptionwerebrutallymurdered,withthekillersoftenleavingnotes that cited the victimâ€™s online activities.
Asanother method of controlling speech and activism online, governments have imposed temporaryshutdownsofthe internetormobilephonenetworksduringmassprotests,political events,orothersensitivetimes.Whilethemostwidely reportedexampleoccurredinEgyptin January 2011, this reportâ€™s findings reveal that both nationwide and localized shutdowns are becomingmorecommon.
FreedomontheNet2012identifiesashiftingsetoftacticsusedbyvariousgovernmentstocontrolthe freeflowofinformation online.Whileblockingandfilteringremainthepreferredmethodsof restrictioninmanyofthestatesexamined,agrowingsetofcountrieshavechosenothertoolsto limitpoliticalandsocialspeechthattheyviewasundesirable.Thesealternativetacticsinclude(1) introductionofvaguelawsthatprohibitcertaintypesofcontent,(2)proactivemanipulation,(3) physical attacks against bloggers and other internetusers, and (4) politically motivated surveillance.
(KetanTanna is Feature and web editor of Free Press Journal. He is based in Mumbai).
Note: Since the worldwide deadline for the Freedom On the Net( FOTN) 2012 report was May 1, 2012, the meltdown of Indian freedom on the net post Assam violence as also the arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in August 2012 did not feature in it.