Governments and official agencies try very hard to control the Internet, but the design of this global network with no physical centre makes it difficult to achieve. What is blocked in one territory is accessible in the rest of the world. More importantly, scrubbing is counterproductive. That bruising lesson must have been learnt by all actors involved in the blocking of over 70 web pages containing content critical of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, an agency that widely advertises a variety of study courses and degrees. The online community has responded with a counter-offensive against the institution on a devastating scale, and called attention worldwide to precisely what the institute wanted purged. Moreover, the episode proves once again that the Information Technology Act is a handy censorship tool. Although the order to the Department of Telecommunications to block the web pages was issued by a Gwalior court, it is flawed, because no opportunity was provided to the websites to enter a defence. It is shocking that the court saw merit in the plaintiff’s plea to block a page of the University Grants Commission, the highest body regulating the general university system, simply because it declared that within the meaning of the UGC Act, IIPM is not a university, and does not have the right to confer or grant degrees.
The assault on freedom of expression on the Internet has taken on crude forms in India, with a regime of arbitrary arrests and censorship orders demolishing a cherished fundamental right. In an extraordinary extension of this outrageous trend, a cyber cell unit in Kerala has issued a notice to a website, Bodhicommons.org asking it to take down a report on a protest held by newspaper employees outside the Mathrubhumi office in Kozhikode. The police, who cited the Criminal Procedure Code, have taken it upon themselves to rule on what is ‘defamatory, misleading and false’. Their demand to disclose the registration details of the website, with the stated objective of penalising the owners is wholly unwarranted, if not illegal. This trend of arbitrary restraints imposed on small, independent online media stands in contrast to the general approach of courts to questions concerning mainstream media — which is to protect the right to free speech. The decision of the Madras High Court not to restrain Dinamalar from publishing facts, particularly publicly documented information including court records, about Sun Group chairman Kalanithi Maran and his family is a case in point. The IIPM issue highlights the dangers inherent in the IT Act, with its omnibus provisions that lend themselves so easily to the stifling of free speech and expression.
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