A motion in the Rajya Sabha has sought annulment of the IT intermediary guidelines

A research, or a sting operation, conducted by researchers at the Centre for Internet and Society in October 2011 — a few months after the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules were notified — revealed some inherent flaws in the guidelines laid down by the Indian government. The results of the study made news, particularly after Union Minister for IT, Kapil Sibal, asked Internet companies and Web service providers to screen content.

The study revealed that companies were only too eager to comply with take-down notices or requests, in order to avoid further hassles, particularly legal ones.

Rishab Dara, a researcher who was part of this ‘sting', pointed out that unless the content was commercial, or had potential commercial interest, companies preferred to err on the side of caution.

Addressing an audience at a panel discussion, titled ‘Resisting Internet censorship: strategies for furthering freedom of expression in India', held at the Bangalore International Centre, Mr. Dara pointed out that search engines did not invest enough resources to check how valid the claims were, before taking down over 2,000 URLs related to a random complaint or take-down notice sent by them. His study underlined the need for debate and discussion on the intermediary guidelines, locating this in the larger context of freedom on the Web.

The discussion, organised by the Centre for Internet and Society, was moderated by the former journalist and academic, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. The audience and the panel comprised a diverse lot: from students, netizens and academics to those who were directly involved in the business of publishing content or hosting Web content. While a substantial part of the discussion dealt with the legal aspects of the notified rules, and how it may contradict the constitutional rights of citizens, a section of the debate also delved into whether the Web as a medium needed to be policed at all.

If panellist Mahesh Murthy, Chief Executive Officer of Pinstorm, argued vociferously for unfettered freedom on the Web and accused the government of being threatened by movements such as the anti-corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare (which he said was largely mobilised on the Web), another panellist Na. Vijayshankar, Cyber Law College, who claimed he was among those instrumental in bringing down the pornographic cartoon portal Savitabhabhi.com, argued that though these rules need to be withdrawn, there are “boundaries” to what can be posted and said on the Web.

Another section of the audience brought up the issues of hate speech on the Web, and pointed out that in some cases there was a need to pin liability on those who generate content that incites hatred.

Sudhir Krishnaswamy, Centre for Law and Policy Research, pointed out that currently the way the issue was being played out in court, the discourse was more about companies.

“The debate is not about users today. Companies are trying to duck liabilities, rather than deal with substantive issues of free speech,” he said, pointing to the complexities in locating liability for content.

Speaking from the publisher's perspective, B.G. Mahesh, OneIndia.in, an online news and entertainment portal, spoke of specific cases where his portal had been targeted by the Chennai Cybercrime cell for hosting a news story (syndicated from a news agency) that was declared defamatory. “We took it down, but there was no answer from them when we asked for an explanation,” he said, adding that in such cases there is tremendous pressure and harassment from authorities, leaving publishers with no choice but to comply.

Though the IT intermediary rules were notified in April 2011, the issue made headlines when Union Minister for Information and Communication Technology Kapil Sibal asked private companies or Web service providers to pre-screen content, a statement which he later withdrew.

Also discussed in detail were the complexities posed by a medium like the World Wide Web, and what were the reasonable restrictions to free speech on the Web. Does one need a separate legal dispensation to deal with this medium, Mr. Thakurta asked. While emphasising that the solution does not lie in “knee-jerk reactions”, such as the rules that have been proposed, he pointed out that the bid to control flow of information was a simple manifestation of the utter helplessness and inability of the government — and governments worldwide — to control the Web. Be it in West Bengal, where a professor is held for sharing a cartoon, or with the Union government that beckons corporates to pre-screen the Web, these acts are a manifestation of a “combination of arrogance and stupidity”, he said.

Subsequently, in February, Rajya Sabha member from Kerala, P. Rajeeve, moved a statutory motion in the Rajya Sabha seeking that these guidelines be annulled on the grounds that it allowed intermediaries protection from legal liability in return for trading away freedom of expression of users.

In the Parliamentary session that will start next week, this is likely to come up for discussion, and across the country, rights activists are mobilising support and lobbying with legislators to garner support for this annulment.