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India’s state security apparatus and tightening controls over internet

18 May 2011

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The Hindu, 17 May 2011

Editorial

Big Brother rules

Whatever the intention behind them, the new rules framed last month under the Information Technology Act, 2000 are likely to have a chilling effect on the development of the Internet as a medium of communication and information in India. Apart from the unreasonable restrictions on free speech they envisage, the rules raise serious concerns about the privacy of a citizen’s personal information, including medical profile, financial position, and sexual orientation. The problem lies with three sets of rules that create guidelines on “intermediaries” and cyber cafes and on the manner in which “sensitive personal data or information” can be shared, especially with government agencies. Intermediaries, defined as those who store, transmit, or provide services related to electronic messages, will henceforth be obligated to block content or information that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence…” This description is so vague and open-ended that it is likely to lead Internet Service Providers, webmasters, and others to play it safe and shut off access to views and opinions that they consider controversial. The rules specify a mechanism for appeal but the permissible time frame of one month is far too long to offer any meaningful redressal of grievances.

The rules on privacy represent an advance in one respect: they prohibit companies with whom an individual has shared her or his sensitive personal information from disclosing it to any third party without prior permission from that individual. But an exception is made for government agencies; they will be entitled to access that information without a court warrant simply on the basis of a written request that states that the information is required for the investigation of a crime. Although these agencies are, in turn, obligated not to share that information with anyone else, this ‘safeguard’ is of little value to citizens who value their privacy vis-à-vis the state. The fact that officially sanctioned telephone intercepts have made their way into the public domain points to the danger of giving officials access to personal information. Nor is it clear how crime can be fought by police officers gathering details about a potential suspect’s “physical, physiological and mental health condition; sexual orientation; and medical records and history,” as the rules partially define “sensitive personal data or information.” Such rules have no place on the statute book of a democracy that values the rights of its citizens. Parliament should insist that the government take another look.

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The Hindu, 12 May 2011

New IT rules may make cyber cafés out of bounds for users

Sandeep Joshi

Owners have to keep logs of customer’s ID, photo

Log records should include ‘history of websites accessed’

Rules even specify type of furniture for a cyber café

NEW DELHI: If the new rules framed by the Department of Information
Technology for using cyber cafés are implemented in letter and spirit,
they could well force people without their own computers to stay away
from accessing the Internet, besides compelling the owners of these
small businesses to store minute details about their customers’
surfing habits in the face of penal action.

Notified last month, the IT (Guidelines for Cyber Café) Rules, 2011,
require cyber café customers to furnish proper identification proof, a
copy of which must be stored for a year.

Acceptable identity cards include those issued by any school or
college, or photo credit cards, passports, voter identity cards, PAN
cards, driving licences or any cards issued by a government agency,
including the UID number.

Schoolchildren who do not have a photo ID will not be allowed entry
unless accompanied by an adult possessing identity proof.

Additionally, cyber café owners must photograph their customers and
maintain a detailed time-log of each of their visits. A soft and hard
copy of these usage logs, which will include the customer’s photograph
and ID proof, must be submitted to a government-designated “person or
agency” every month.

In addition, the cyber café owner “shall be responsible for storing
and maintaining backups of [the] following log records for each access
or login by any user of its computer resource for at least one year,”
including the “history of websites accessed.”

Incredibly, the new rules, framed under the Information Technology
Act, 2008, even specify the kind of furniture a cyber café must have.
Cubicles with partitions higher than four-and-a-half feet will be
illegal, and cafés are obligated to place terminals in such a way that
computer screens face “outward” (towards common open space of the
café) and can be easily monitored.

The new guidelines say that computers in cyber cafés should be
equipped with “commercially available safety or filtering software so
as to avoid, as far as possible, access to the websites relating to
pornography including child pornography or obscene information.”

Further, cyber café owners need to put a display board, clearly
visible to users, prohibiting them from viewing pornographic sites as
well as copying or downloading information that is prohibited under
the law.

“Cyber cafés shall take sufficient precautions to ensure that their
computer resources are not utilised for any illegal activity,” the
rules add.

Alleging that the new guidelines could cause further harassment of
cyber café owners as well as users, Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher
of the website MediaNama, says the provisions in the law need to be
more liberal in order to prevent its misuse by lawmakers.

Pointing out that the new regulations are impractical and cannot be
applied, Mr. Pahwa says: “As with most other rules, these rules would
probably not be enforced… but the problem is in the exceptional cases,
when they are used in order to harass establishments.”

However, there is one silver lining. “In the earlier rules, an officer
not below the rank of police officer was authorised to inspect the
cyber café and network. But in the changed rules, an officer of the
registration agency will be authorised. This means that the harassment
of cyber café owners/managers would probably not be done by a police
officer,” Mr. Pahwa says.

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Hindustan Times

Google opposes India’s internet rules

Agencies

New Delhi, May 11, 2011

Google has opposed proposed restrictions by Indian internet regulators
stating that the rules can pose problem to the company. Department of
Information Technology has issued new internet regulations under which
if any content carries ’disparaging’, ’harassing’, ’blasphemous’ or ’hateful’ can be banned.

The rules require websites to remove objectionable content. They require internet-service providers and social-networking sites to bar certain types of content. The websites also are responsible for removing objectionable content within 36 hours of being notified by authorities.

Google objected to this rule and said it can cause harm to the company
as it exposes the company to liability for material posted by third parties.

Google wanted to relieve companies of the responsibility to decide what is illegal, and instead rely on a written notice from "a court of law or other legally empowered public authority."

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the new rules.

(With WSJ input)

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The New York Times

India Puts Tight Leash on Internet Free Speech

An Internet cafe in New Delhi. New rules require Web sites and service providers to remove some content that officials and even private citizens find objectionable.

By VIKAS BAJAJ

Published: April 27, 2011

MUMBAI, India — Free speech advocates and Internet users are protesting new Indian regulations restricting Web content that, among other things, can be considered “disparaging,” “harassing,” “blasphemous” or “hateful.”

The new rules, quietly issued by the country’s Department of Information Technology earlier this month and only now attracting attention, allow officials and private citizens to demand that Internet sites and service providers remove content they consider objectionable on the basis of a long list of criteria.

Critics of the new rules say the restrictions could severely curtail debate and discussion on the Internet, whose use has been growing fast in India.

The list of objectionable content is sweeping and includes anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order.”

The rules highlight the ambivalence with which Indian officials have long treated freedom of expression. The country’s constitution allows “reasonable restrictions” on free speech but lawmakers have periodically stretched that definition to ban books, movies and other material about sensitive subjects like sex, politics and religion.

An Indian state, for example, recently banned an American author’s new biography of the Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi that critics have argued disparages Mr. Gandhi by talking about his relationship with another man.

Although fewer than 10 percent of Indians have access to the Internet, that number has been growing fast — especially on mobile devices. There are more than 700 million cellphone accounts in India.

The country has also established a thriving technology industry that writes software and creates Web services primarily for Western clients.

Even before the new rules — known as the Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011 — India has periodically tried to restrict speech on the Internet. In 2009, the government banned a popular and graphic online comic strip, Savita Bhabhi, about a housewife with an active sex life. Indian officials have also required social networking sites like Orkut to take down posts deemed offensive to ethnic and religious groups.

Using a freedom of information law, the Center for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based research and advocacy group, recently obtained and published a list of 11 Web sites banned by the Department of Information Technology. Other government agencies have probably blocked more sites, the group said.

The new Internet rules go further than existing Indian laws and restrictions, said Sunil Abraham, the executive director for the Center for Internet and Society. The rules require Internet “intermediaries” — an all-encompassing group that includes sites like YouTube and Facebook and companies that host Web sites or provide Internet connections — to respond to any demand to take down offensive content within 36 hours. The rules do not provide a way for content producers to defend their work or appeal a decision to take content down.

“These rules overly favor those who want to clamp down on freedom of expression,” Mr. Abraham said. “Whenever there are limits of freedom of expression, in order for those limits to be considered constitutionally valid, those limits have to be clear and not be very vague. Many of these rules that seek to place limits are very, very vague.”

An official for the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, an advocacy group based in New Delhi, said on Wednesday that it was considering a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the new rules.

“What are we, Saudi Arabia?” said Pushkar Raj, the group’s general secretary. “We don’t expect this from India. This is something very serious.”

An official at the Department of Information Technology, Gulshan Rai, did not return calls and messages.

The rules are based on a 2008 information technology law that India’s Parliament passed shortly after a three-day siege on Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed more than 163 people. That law, among other things, granted authorities more expansive powers to monitor electronic communications for reasons of national security. It also granted privacy protections to consumers.

While advocates for free speech and civil liberties have complained that the 2008 law goes too far in violating the rights of Indians, Internet firms have expressed support for it. The law removed liability from Internet intermediaries as long as they were not active participants in creating content that was later deemed to be offensive.

Subho Ray, the president of the Internet and Mobile Association of India, which represents companies like Google and eBay, said the liability waiver was a big improvement over a previous law that had been used to hold intermediaries liable for hosting content created by others. In 2004, for instance, the police arrested eBay’s top India executive because a user of the company’s Indian auction site had offered to sell a video clip of a teenage couple having sex.

“The new I.T. Act (2008) is, in fact, a large improvement on the old one,” Mr. Ray said in an e-mail response to questions.

Mr. Ray said his association had not taken a stand on the new regulations. An India-based spokeswoman for Google declined to comment on the new rules, saying the company needed more time to respond.

Along with the new content regulations, the government also issued rules governing data security, Internet cafes and the electronic provision of government services.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 28, 2011, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: India Puts Tight Leash On Internet Free Speech.