Internet media: fragile freedom

IN Media Freedom | 20/04/2011
Cyberattacks, politically motivated censorship, and government control over internet infrastructure are among the diverse and growing threats to internet freedom. India ranks as ‘partly free’
states a report from FREEDOM HOUSE released this week.
Encroachments on internet freedom come at a time of explosive growth in the number of internet users worldwide, which has doubled over the past five years. Governments are responding to the increased influence of the new medium by seeking to control online activity, restricting the free flow of information, and otherwise infringing on the rights of users, says ‘Freedom on the Net 2011, a global assessment of Internet and Digital Media’, a study of internet freedom in 37 countries, including India, by the Washington-based organisation, Freedom House.
 “Internet freedom cannot be taken for granted,” said David J. Kramer, executive director of Freedom House. “Nondemocratic regimes are devoting more attention and resources to censorship and other forms of interference with online expression.”
Freedom on the Net evaluates each country based on barriers to access, limitations on content, and violations of users’ rights. The study found that Estonia had the greatest degree of internet freedom among the countries examined, while the United States ranked second. Iran received the lowest score in the analysis. Eleven other countries received a ranking of Not Free, including Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. A total of 9 of the 15 countries in the original pilot study registered declines over the past two years. Conditions in at least half of the newly added countries similarly indicated a negative trajectory. Crackdowns on bloggers, increased censorship, and targeted cyberattacks often coincided with broader political turmoil, including controversial elections.
An extract from the India chapter
Limits on content
There has been no sustained government policy or strategy to block access to ICTs on a large scale, though blocks have been imposed sporadically during crises, such as the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999. Attempts to filter content have mostly originated with state-level executive authorities, and with private individuals through court cases.
However, government measures to institute administrative processes for removing certain content from the web, sometimes for fear they could incite violence, have become more common in recent years.
Since 2003, the institutional structure of internet censorship and filtering in India has centered on the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN), a body created in 2003 within the MCIT’s Department of Information Technology. CERT-IN serves as a nodal agency for accepting and reviewing requests from a designated pool of government officials to block access to specific websites. When it decides to block a site, it directs the Department of Telecommunications—also part of the MCIT—to order all licensed IndianISPs to comply with the decision. There is no review or appeals process in place. In June 2009, the authorities blocked a highly popular adult cartoon site called Savitabhabhi without granting the creators an opportunity to defend their right to free expression, raising concerns about the arbitrary nature and broad scope of the government’s power in this area.
Pressure on private intermediaries to remove certain information in compliance with administrative censorship orders has increased since late 2009, with the implementation of the amended ITA. The revised law grants the MCIT authority to block internet material that is perceived to endanger public order or national security, requires companies to have a designated employee to receive government blocking requests, and assigns up to seven years’ imprisonment for representatives of a wide range of private service providers—including ISPs, search engines, and cybercafes—if they fail to comply with government blocking requests. While some observers acknowledge that incendiary online content could pose a real risk of violence, particularly given India’s history of periodic communal strife, press freedom and civil liberties advocates have raised concerns over the far-reaching scope of the ITA, its potential chilling effect, and the possibility that the authorities could abuse it to suppress political speech.
While there is no publicly available list of officially blocked websites, no politically
oriented website is believed to have been blocked during the reporting period.
When Google began reporting government requests for data and content removal in early 2010, India ranked third in the world for removal requests and fourth for data requests. Between July 1, 2009, and December 31, 2009, India had submitted 142 removal requests, of which 77.5 percent were fully or partially complied with. The requests related to the Blogger blog-hosting service, Book Search, Geo, SMS channels, web searches, YouTube, and especially Orkut.
In one case that gained international attention, Google in September 2009 took down an Orkut group on which users had reportedly posted offensive comments about the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who had been killed in a helicopter crash a few days earlier. Indian officials were apparently concerned that the comments could spark communal violence.
Google has removed content in response to requests from various government
authorities. For example, in January 2007 the company agreed to an arrangement allowing police forces to directly report objectionable content to Google and ask it for details regarding internet protocol (IP) addresses and service providers. By May of that year, Google had cooperated with the Mumbai police regarding online communities andcomments directed against the Indian historical figure Shivaji, right-wing leader Bal
Thackeray, and dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar.
Bloggers are rarely forced by the government or private individuals to take down
their writings, but there have been a few instances in which this has occurred.While online journalists and bloggers are not often required to censor their writing, it is understood that certain topics must be approached with caution. These include religion, communalism, the corporate-government nexus, links between government and organized crime, Kashmiri separatism, hostile rhetoric from Pakistan, and various forms of aggressive, demagogic speech. Such topics are indeed addressed by online writers, but they are handled carefully to avoid inciting violence, particularly by nonstate actors.
For example, blogger Chetan Kunte criticized NDTV journalist Barkha Dutt for her station’s coverage of the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, accusing her of engaging in sensationalism and irresponsibly airing information about the movements of security forces. Dutt and NDTV threatened to seek punitive measures against Kunte through the courts, and the blogger agreed to remove the critical content.
Highly partisan reporting and commentary abound on the Indian internet, stemming from real or perceived divisions between the government and the people, between ethnic and religious communities, and between India and some of its regional neighbors. Such material is especially common on left- or right-wing extremist sites and sites related to Kashmir.
The Indian blogosphere is quite active and eloquent, complementing the rise in internet use by different interest groups and civil society actors. However, the actual number of bloggers still appears to be quite small, and the blogosphere is fragmented given the large number of blogging platforms available.
Online communication and social-networking services are increasingly being used as means to organize politically. Various politicians, including the 87-year-old former deputy prime minister L. K. Advani,44 use social media and ICTs to reach out to voters. In the runup to the 2009 general elections, political parties and their allies mounted massive SMS campaigns to drum up support.
Citizens also mounted online campaigns on various issues, including one protesting the phenomenon of accused or convicted criminals running for seats in Parliament. Other sites aimed to educate voters about candidates’ backgrounds,46 or aggregate election-related news articles. A collaborative online platform called Vote Report India allowed citizens to share information on violations of electoral rules using media including SMS, e-mail, and Twitter.
Click here for complete report
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More