China may operate one of the world’s most detailed and opaque systems of Internet censorship. India, however, in its usual fumbling way, has managed to cobble together a bureaucratic system of dealing with the Internet that is not only grossly incompetent but can only make one admire the organisational structure of China’s great firewall.
The recent case of over 50 websites, containing content against the business school, The Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), being blocked shows us that in a system such as ours, it becomes child’s play to put a blanket over views that disagree with our own.
On February 14, a court in Gwalior directed the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to block 78 Uniform Resource Locators (URL), 73 of which pointed at content critical of Arindam Chaudhuri, the plaintiff, and the management institution he owns.
Following the order, the web-pages of media outlets Outlook and TheCaravan magazines, Faking News , Kafila , The Indian Express , The Economic Times , Careers360 , Firstpost and others had been blocked. Both Outlook (through one of its blogs) and The Caravan magazines have stated that they were not notified before the shutdown was effected.
“I think Arindam Chaudhuri has pulled off something unexpected by getting a court to block URLs without having to hear the other parties,” said Mr. Anant Nath, Editor, The Caravan magazine, adding that he thought the action was against the spirit of the law and of the principle of natural justice.
So what has happened is that the media outlets, bloggers, and other publishers concerned have been quickly and effectively censored without prior notification. And all due to the frustration of one man.
As Chaudhuri told Business Standard , he would only now take up the scrutiny of “the contents of the URLs and not contest those which are harmless satire-based contents of a non-defamatory kind” (“ >Not interested in talking to petty blackmailers: Arindam Chaudhuri ,” February 16, 2013).
Why was access to some parts of Faking News , a well-known site hosting spoof-commentary on Indian news, cut off then? If Chaudhuri was reluctant to prosecute satirical content, who put Faking News on the list? Did Chaudhuri willy-nilly include it himself or was it, disturbingly, the court’s decision to include it?
Worse still, the clampdown goes farther than restricting the freedom of expression and seeks to encourage the freedom of misinformation, too. One of the pages blocked was a University Grants Commission (UGC) notice which declared the unrecognised status of IIPM ( >http://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/3604913_English.pdf ) under the UGC Act, 1956.
This implies that Chaudhuri considers a legally binding decision on him to be defamatory, and would inhibit the propagation of truth — the notice, after all, was put up in the interest of the public.
Role of the judiciary
The second actor in this is the judiciary, which over the last one year has aided in this inhibition process. The Chaudhuri incident was only a matter of time. It was foreshadowed by two separate judgments, by the Madras High Court and Calcutta High Court, both relating to the removal of content on the Web. At the beginning of last year, the Calcutta High Court passed orders to block over a hundred piratical music websites. The plaintiff, the Indian Music Industry, did not have to file separate injunctions or bring the website owners to court.
The Madras High Court, in a similar case, passed a “John Doe” order — essentially a carte blanche — that allowed Copyright Labs (an anti-piracy organisation) to shut down legitimate file-sharing websites for various periods of time.
In both cases, we see speedy blocking of internet content at the expense of due process. In the Chaudhuri case, the DoT was directed to act before the accused were allowed to defend claims of defamation in court. This was explained away as a sort of interim relief, something that has dangerous consequences for freedom of speech on the internet. In the print world, there is no such interim relief of this kind for defamation cases.
The farce, however, is the role of the Internet Service Providers (ISP). Judicial orders are careful to note that only specific links or micro sites (one part of a website) are to be blocked. Either due to incompetence or ignorance, the ISPs however block entire websites and not just the specific links deemed defamatory. That is how the entire blog section of Outlook ended up being censored. This was despite the fact that only one specific link was deemed defamatory.
It becomes glaringly clear that the process of dealing with offensive and defamatory speech on the Internet is an opaque house of cards. If any card in the set, be it a plaintiff who has an axe to grind, a judge that doesn’t understand technology, or an incompetent ISP, slips, the house crumbles.
A bumbling firewall perhaps is no better than a Chinese one.