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December to see fight to protect free speech, online freedom

Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal  

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Sibal skips global meet but confirms India stands against ITU control over content and free speech

December will be a crucial month in the fight to protect free speech and online freedom. Last Friday, astrophysics graduate Shreya Singhal questioned the constitutionality of the controversial Section 66A of the Indian IT Act in the Supreme Court. Her public interest litigation petition follows massive opposition to the Act, which several civil society groups, lawyers and activists have termed “draconian,” as it allows the government to slap criminal charges if online information is considered offensive. churning

And, 1,383 miles away in Dubai, from December 3-14, 193 countries will assemble under the aegis of the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to review International Telecom Regulations (ITRs) after 24 years, which it is believed, will have a serious impact on free speech and online freedom.

Internet politics has pitched North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and East African countries against Russia, China, Arab States and some African Nations. The real question relates to the ITU making decisions behind closed doors that can impact the future of the Internet, content regulation, surveillance and cost to consumers, especially in developing countries like India.

India will have an important role as the world stands divided between countries that seem to favour an open Internet, opposing inter-governmental oversight and those who have openly declared the need for U.N. and ITU to regulate the Internet.

The domestic struggle

In India, media and blogs are abuzz with the PIL against the IT law that has and will continue to see everything from protests and street plays against it to social media campaigns. The law, if unchanged, can affect nearly half a billion Indians by 2016, it has been noted. Additional PILs are expected to join this case and others may be filed on other related aspects of the Act. Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal told The Hindu last week that he is tightening the guidelines, adding additional safeguards by elevating the rank of police officers who can invoke the Act, to prevent misuse. He also held a meeting with multi-stakeholders to take objections on board. Though these are steps in the right direction, the stakeholders now believe they come perhaps a tad late, since the arrests will make it difficult for the Supreme Court to allow government the luxury of time that it might need to bring about the required amendments in the Act through Parliament.

Simultaneously, on Monday, as the ITU conference begins, a roughly 20-member delegation from India will be headed to Dubai. The ITU, which does a lot of good work related to spectrum and technology standards, is now in a controversial space, which pitches the United Nations against a global campaign on free speech and online freedom.

At the conference, only governments can vote on proposals. The private sector and civil society, though in attendance, cannot voice their opinion.

Mr. Sibal, who was originally supposed to lead the Indian delegation, told The Hindu that he would not be travelling to Dubai and DoT Secretary R Chandrashekhar would lead the delegation in his place.

Though leading industry associations, Internet and telecom bodies and members of civil society have provided fresh inputs, Mr. Sibal clarified on Saturday that “though the inputs have been received, it will not be possible to redraft the written proposal owing to a shortage of time. However, the government is seized of the concerns and sentiments and we will ensure during the final negotiations that India’s intent of protecting content and free speech from inter-governmental regulation is articulated clearly. Our position will simultaneously keep in mind India’s cyber security objectives.”

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Printable version | Aug 22, 2017 8:24:33 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/december-to-see-fight-to-protect-free-speech-online-freedom/article4157020.ece