The Union government’s move to ban or block 310 online entities is worrisome

The unprecedented spike in the velocity of hateful, offensive and blatantly communal online content earlier this month, which reinforced rumour mongering on the ground that resulted in the exodus of people from the northeast from several Indian cities has been a classic example of how new technologies can be harnessed for old vices. But just as disturbing has been the manner in which the government yielded to the old itch of censoring, banning or blocking content. Between August 18 and August 21, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), in four separate directives issued to all Internet service licensees, asked them to “block access” to a total of 310 URLs (Unique Resource Locators).

Directing ISPs

The number of URLs blocked does not quite convey the extent of the banned content because the list includes instances of entire websites, a single Web page in some cases, videos posted on YouTube, Twitter handles, Facebook entries, or even instances of links that would take the browser to an img tag (an individual image that is linked to an HTML page). Although the directives clearly stated that the service providers should block only the specific URLs leading to the main sites such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.

Airtel, the leading telecom and Internet service provider, blocked youtu.be, the short URL that Twitter and Facebook users normally use for sharing images and videos. A perusal of the four orders clearly shows that Airtel overreacted. Although the service provider subsequently corrected the error, worries about arbitrary disruptions remain.

Pranesh Prakash, Programme Manager, Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), who did the first analysis of the resources that were pulled out of the Web, said the list was only partial, because they related only to the URLs that ISPs were asked to block, not what action would have been initiated against those offering Web services.

A ragtag list

Net activists, even those who do not have an absolutist notion of the right to free speech, have expressed deep reservations about the manner in which the government has blocked 310 URLs. Although Mr. Prakash, who is also a lawyer, believes that “temporary curbs” of freedom of expression, in situations such as the unprecedented situation earlier this month may be necessary, he argued that the government acted carelessly and in a kneejerk manner. “It is a ragtag list, prepared in a haphazard manner,” he told The Hindu.

Logically, the rules applicable to hate content ought to be the same whether the offence is in print or whether it appears as online content. Mr. Prakash pointed to the fact that official agencies such as the police have not gone after those responsible for the content posted in the blocked URLs, which shows that the government’s approach is not backed by a resolve to bring to book those responsible for spreading hate.

The ban-first, examine-later approach is wrong for three sets of reasons, argued Mr. Prakash. First, because there are what he characterises as “egregious mistakes”. Second, he doubts whether regulations prescribing due process of enforcing and reviewing the ban were indeed followed. Third, the government ought to have acted smarter, by using the same media to debunk the rumours that were swirling in several Indian cities but also in the northeast. Mr. Prakash pointed to the case of a Canadian intern working at the CIS who received an SMS from a Canadian government agency that asked her not to heed the rumours. Although the Bangalore police did issue an SMS asking people not to heed such rumours, it came well after the rumour mongering had passed its peak.

“I generally believe that the government must exercise utmost caution in censoring,” said Mr. Prakash. He pointed out that in the list were sites and people who had done nothing to promote hate. He refered to the case of Amit Paranjpe, whose twitter handles were blocked. “If you go through his timeline, you will not find anything that is communal at all,” Mr. Prakash says. “I do not think the government acted responsibly by going after material that is not directly inflammatory, or contributes to the state of panic,” he argued. “I do not doubt the motives of the government, because I see that the overwhelming majority of the material it has blocked is stuff that has something to do with communalism or rioting, whether it is as reportage or as material that contributes to tension,” he observed. He also did not think the government used the crisis as an excuse to put down politically dissenting voices, which was what happened last October (critical references to Sonia Gandhi were removed then).

Cyber terror?

Significantly, the list of blocked domains did not match the government’s claim that a lot of the hate content were in the form of images with misleading captions, most of which came from Pakistan. Mr. Prakash pointed out that many of these images had “been floating around” in Pakistan for at least a month before the rumours hit their peak in mid-August. He noted that within Pakistan there had been debates about the authenticity of these images. “In fact, the reportage and the countering of the reportage in the Pakistani media has been much more sophisticated than in India,” he observed. Significantly, the debate was not even targeted at the Indian audience, but to Pakistani or a global audience. “This debunks the notion some sections of the media have propagated, that this is about cyber war or cyber terrorism,” he says. “I have not seen evidence that India has been targeted from Pakistan,” he observed.

Lack of transparency

It has also been done without abiding by the procedures that are clearly laid down. Mr. Prakash pointed out, the provisions of the Information Technology Act require that “persons or intermediaries” blocked ought to have been given an opportunity to explain their position within 48 hours. He doubted that this had been followed. Moreover, he argued that the people or companies hosting the offensive content, not the ISPs, ought to have been asked to remove them. After all, most of the large and popular intermediaries have clearly laid down conditions of usage, he said.

The lack of transparency in the manner in which the government blocked these websites — even if it is accepted that the content was hateful, abhorrent and aimed at stirring social tension — is worrisome because it sets a precedent for unchecked use of power, without proper sanction. Nor was it a smart way of addressing an innovatively virulent way of spreading chaos. While the government’s use of the sledgehammer may have got it out of the immediate crisis it found itself in, it may have fewer friends when faced with a similar outbreak later.