Agree that legitimate Internet restrictions should not slide into illegitimate censorship

A key breakthrough emerging from a critical multi-stakeholder meeting held here on Tuesday on Internet censorship and legitimate state restrictions during crisis situations was that the government should itself use the Internet and social media to counter hate speech with comfort speech. Hate speech on social media has been blamed for triggering riots in Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Mumbai two weeks ago.

The participants, who included DoT Secretary R. Chandrashekhar, DG CERT-IN Gulshan Rai, representatives from Google, Facebook, Internet service providers (ISPs), mobile operators, civil society, technical community and media, said the government should partner with Internet companies, social media, ISPs and telcos (through bulk SMSs) to proactively fight fear emanating from rumours through reassuring communication.

FICCI has proposed the setting up of a Crisis Council consisting of telecom companies, ISPs, social media along with civil society and the community, with the ability to act swiftly in a crisis situation.

London example

Offering detailed examples of how the London police successfully used social media to counter riots, Google and Facebook offered to assist law enforcement agencies to similarly use the Internet for the protection of the public during times of crisis.

The discussions also led to an overwhelming consensus on the need to engage multi-stakeholder groups beyond the industry on the issue. Participants provided several benefits of such wide-ranging cooperation, including access to international practices and law, a user perspective, measures for the need for a threshold before crisis-related Internet blocking can be ordered and the need to bring in legally justified orders post blocking. To illustrate that mere blocking of content may not be the best method of combating hate speech, a suggestion was made to audit the effect of the blocking undertaken since mid-August in controlling the riots. It was felt that this information would be useful in guiding the government’s strategy in similar crisis situations in the future.

Clarity on blocking

A third key agreement was the need for greater transparency and clarity on who can direct blocking, under what circumstances, and whether those whose sites have been blocked have recourse to redress.

Dr. Gulshan Rai explained the origins of some of the legal provisions in the IT Rules, pointing out that they had been based on inputs provided by the industry itself. He also highlighted that this was the first time that the government had blocked content which needed to be appreciated when evaluating its performance.

Welcoming the suggestions, particularly the need for greater cooperation and transparency, Mr. Chandrashekhar sought a “digest” of the inputs along with relevant global best practices for the consideration of the government, while giving an assurance that the government had no intention of censoring the Internet except in special circumstances and only under lawful provisions.

Some of the intermediaries sought a greater level of disclosure in the blocking orders as well as a need for the government to offer recourse to those whose content is blocked.

Mr. Chandrashekhar acknowledged the benefits of ongoing engagement with stakeholders, improved communication, increasing awareness and transparency to principally ensure that legitimate requirements to block content does not slide into illegitimate censorship.

The next set of discussions will be held on October 4-5 in an Internet governance conference with multi-stakeholder groups and several foreign experts on board on a range of issues, including cyber security and hate speech.

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