While laws governing the Internet in India are in need of urgent reform, the inherent deficiencies in the system, including lack of awareness among law enforcement and poor understanding of the medium, must be tackled, researchers participating in a conference on “Strengthening freedom of expression online in India” have said.

Two papers presented here on Friday by researchers from the Internet Democracy Project examined recent criminal cases dealing with defamation, sedition and outraging modesty of women on the internet.

Presenting an analysis of criminal law to online speech through seven case studies, researchers Anja Kovacs and Shehla Rashid spoke about the need to change the legal framework governing Internet laws here. The cases discussed included one involving IIPM, and those against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and West Bengal professor Ambikesh Mahapatra. The discussions revolved around the role of non-state actors, including internet intermediaries (or service providers), in challenging freedom of expression online.

Another discussion paper on “Gender: Online Harassment and the Law in India” dealt with the different forms of verbal abuse women face on online platforms and how they deal with the abuse. Though access to internet is empowering for women, this is a new challenge they face, said Ms. Kovacs, discussing the draft findings of her studies.

An entire session was devoted to discussing the role of social media in the northeast exodus last August, which was largely attributed to rumour mongering through SMS and social networks. Focussing on the blocking of URLs and social media accounts following this, participants questioned the process behind identifying the “source of the rumours online”.

Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama said: “Even if the police needs to act against certain content in an emergency, there should be a proper review process to ensure that the law is not misused.”

Participants included representatives from companies such as Facebook and Google Inc. They participated in the discussion on the role of non-state actors, including Internet intermediaries, pressure groups and the public at large.

Ram Bhat of Maraa said that the government views the internet as a service delivery model — a way to push down information. “This approach does not leave room for debate on the free speech aspect,” he said.

Ankhi Das of Facebook India said that she was optimistic about what the Internet could achieve in a country like India. She cited the Digital Green project that uses a YouTube channel to disseminate information to farmers. “I feel that the internet may be nascent now but there is room for optimism when you see such things take off and make a difference,” she said.

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