Censorship Debate Skirts Tough Questions

By Amol Sharma
If the goal of the two-hour gabfest was to restore some civility between parties that don’t trust each other, to get some good vibes flowing, then it succeeded on that score. But it sidestepped some big controversies in the process.
The idea was flawless: gathering representatives of the Indian government, major Internet companies and civil society groups to dissect recent controversies over online censorship – a.k.a. #Emergency2012 – and find a way forward. India badly needs this kind of dialogue.

Unfortunately, industry body FICCI’s roundtable on “Legitimate Restrictions on Freedom of Online Speech,” while well-intentioned, for the most part skirted the tough questions, including: Did the government err in blocking any of the Web content it blocked? Why didn’t the government release a list of blocked sites and the rationale for blocking them? When will blocked sites be restored, or will they ever be?

The event did produce some constructive suggestions on how India’s murky Internet rules could be improved, but whenever the discussion turned to the specifics – like whether content in such broad categories as “grossly harmful” and “disparaging” should really be off-limits – it was cut off by a moderator who seemed concerned about ruffling feathers of government officials in attendance.

To recap: Between Aug. 18 and 21st, India passed four orders to block 310 items on the Web, including specific URLs, Twitter handles, and some entire sites. Authorities said this was an emergency response: the content was removed, they said, because it was fueling communal unrest in India amid violence in northeastern Assam state between Muslim settlers and an indigenous group.

Gulshan Rai, the Indian official who actually sends notices to companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove content, was in attendance at the FICCI event. He defended the government’s actions, listing the various statutes in the Information Technology Act that give the government blocking authority in cases such as when “public order” or the “security of the State” are threatened. He noted this was the first time the government had invoked emergency authority under the law. (See sections 69A and 79 of the I.T. Act.)

Mr. Rai said the government reviewed but decided not to block 90 additional items – but he didn’t spell out how these decisions were made. When asked by a reporter in the audience whether the government made any mistakes in the 310 items that were blocked, including news reporting about the northeastern violence, he said: “I don’t think there’s been any mistake.”

As for question of what liabilities Internet companies like Google and Facebook (also in attendance) could face for not pulling down content, Mr. Rai said those companies simply are required to tell users in terms-of-service agreements what they can and cannot post – that’s where their obligation ends, he said. That’s news to Google and Facebook, which are facing criminal charges at the moment for failing to remove Web content in cases unrelated to the northeastern violence. (Section 79 of the I.T. Act requires Web companies to respond to take-down requests within 36 hours.) Though Mr. Rai told the gathering, “the rules are very simple,” there was clearly confusion over this and other areas of the law.

The Internet companies, some of which aggressively fought the Internet censorship rules that went into effect last year, weren’t asked the basic questions: Did you have a problem with anything you were asked to block or with the process that was used to approach you?

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Telecom Secretary R. Chandrasekhar said “there is neither an intent nor a desire in the government to censor the Internet.”
Still, Facebook’s head of public policy in India, Ankhi Das, volunteered that the firm has concerns about “over-blocking” and said India could spend more effort educating Web users and producing “counter-speech” to mitigate the impact of hate speech, rather than relying on enforcement alone. “Having a large-scale public education effort is equally important,” she said.

Approached after the panel, Ms. Das added that Facebook supports instituting judicial review, so courts would have to verify that government blocking orders had valid reasons. “Otherwise there aren’t enough safeguards,” she said. “The courts have to be brought in.”

It wasn’t clear after that debate why the government didn’t officially release the names of sites it blocked – that information leaked out to civil society groups and media. Mr. Rai said the issue was that Internet companies won’t provide the identities of some page-owners. But why do we need to know the site-owners’ names? Why can’t the government just release a table with a list of URLs and handles that were blocked in one column and the reasons for blocking them in another?

Most observers, even critics of the government, believe there was a genuine crisis unfolding and authorities were in the right to intervene to some degree. The question is whether they did so clumsily, and even perhaps illegally. “My belief is that the government went about this with the best of intentions…while doing so, they made numerous mistakes, some of which could be unlawful,” said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society, one of the group’s that has been vocal about the need to reform the censorship rules.

The notices that ordered site-owners to remove content didn’t even explain on what legal basis the government was acting, Mr. Prakash noted. And he said some of the Internet rules – such as guidelines for Internet companies to remove material that is “grossly harmful” – are unconstitutional.

If the goal of the two-hour gabfest was to restore some civility between parties that don’t trust each other, to get some good vibes flowing, then it succeeded on that score. But it sidestepped some big controversies in the process. The moderator repeatedly noted that the goal was to get constructive feedback on how to move forward — not to debate what went wrong.

There were a few good recommendations: Most people agree that users should get some kind of message when they visit a blocked site, explaining why it was blocked and by whom. An audience member suggested a post-crisis “audit” that would force the government to explain why it blocked what it did. There should be a grievance-redressal process for those whose sites have been blocked, many attendees said.

Telecom Secretary R. Chandrasekhar, to his credit, seemed refreshingly open to input, acknowledging that the government’s communication could be better and “the processes could be clearer.” Still, some attendees wondered (in private discussions after the panel) whether the government will actually follow through by tweaking rules. After all, critics of the censorship rules have been pushing to have them overhauled for 18 months with no luck.
Mr. Chandrasekhar said “there is neither an intent nor a desire in the government to censor the Internet,” and said the debate over the issue thus far has been too binary, not leaving room for legitimate restrictions of speech in moments of crisis. “Either you allow everyone to say whatever they want all the time with zero restrictions – or you’ve brought in an era of censorship,” he said.

– Amol Sharma is an India Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter @AmolSharmaWsj.
Source http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/09/05/censorship-roundtable-skirts-tough-questions/


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