The unfree internet

Users fear that the new IT rules are an attack on their right to freedom of speech and expression 
Nimisha Jaiswal Delhi  

Posing a considerable challenge to the 'power-to-all' tenet the World Wide Web provides, the Information Technology Rules 2011 have caused an unprecedented flurry amidst the online community. While the number of Indians online may only be a small fraction of the population, many fear that the rules might have serious repercussions on the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression provided to citizens by Article 19 1(A).
 
The 'intermediaries guidelines' provided in the new IT rules, amongst others, provide provision for the removal of content within 36 hours, if an 'intermediary' is approached by any individual or group offended by the content. The causes of offense, which include vague terms such as 'harmful, threatening, abusive, blasphemous, objectionable, defamatory, hateful' etc, the experts point out, are open to interpretation without regulation by any authority. 

The intermediary, after removing content, must hold it for 90 days for the use of 'concerned government authorities', which can then use the content to issue a case against its producer, if the content has broken any laws. What has left opponents of the guidelines incredulous is the absence of a provision which allows 'offenders' recourse to appeal or challenge the removal of their content. "If Internet platforms are held liable for third party content, it would lead to self-censorship and reduce the free flow of information. The regulatory framework should ideally help protect Internet platforms and people's abilities to access information," said a statement by internet giant Google. 

However, being the powerful medium that it is, unregulated and almost impossible to tame, is it really possible to forfeit the institution of laws regarding the internet, especially in light of the recent proofs of use by terrorist cells? "The point is that laws are required; we definitely need that terrorism does not take place, we definitely need for criminals to be curbed, and there is no denying that we need laws. However, we need laws which have minimal potential for abuse", says Pushkar Raj of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), one of the organisations which is mobilising against the unconstitutional nature of the rules. 

Discussing the unclear nomenclature of terms and the possibility for any form of interpretation, Raj reiterates, "In these cases, we see that there is a potential for enormous misuse. A need exists to fine tune these rules. New terms have been added which are equally vague. The major problem is that while in every rule under any law, all the terms are defined - here, none of them are." 

PUCL, like other organizations, wishes to appeal for the reconsideration of these rules, pointing out the flaws and leaving modification up to the government. However, Raj puts forward an interesting proposal regarding concerns about harmful and inciteful content being published on the internet, the kind which these rules target - "We are a democratic country, where all sections of the society are well aware about its various problems and are taking part more and more in governance issues. This (the internet) is a healthy, easy and inexpensive medium to connect with the urban educated elite. There is a synergy of opinions, view and dialogues in the spirit of democracy, and if there would be certain ideas which are undemocratic, they will be eliminated. If there is a battle of opinions, only the best will get acceptance. Let there be a natural process about what society feels is acceptable, don't censor it. Let there be ideas, dialogue and debate - that is how society will develop in a healthy fashion. Let there be a battle of ideas, as that is how a democracy functions; there needs to be a healthy tradition of debate. If we have it in the constitution, why are we shy of implementing it on the ground? It's evolution!"