This article was published by, 16-6-2011

End of Free Speech?

Online Control: Gerard Oonk

Following the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, the Indian government is leaving no stone unturned to curb terrorism. In an effort to monitor cyber terrorism, the new Information Technology Rules 2011 have brought out stringent laws to eliminate website content that is deemed ‘offensive’. This law, however, is a severe blow to supporters of free speech. Gerard Oonk, Director of Dutch NGO the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), shares his opinion.

According to the Information Technology Rules 2011, government authorities will now be able to shut down web sites with offensive content. What, in your opinion, will be the consequences of this new law?
The consequences will be that not only the government but everybody can ask for certain web content to be taken down by using their own interpretation of the present criteria which are extremely general and broad. Criteria such as ‘disparaging’, ‘hateful’, ‘harassing’ and even ‘blasphemous’ can be interpreted very differently by different people. Also criteria such as ‘web content that is potentially damaging to the relations with other countries’ is so broad, that it can apply to anything critical being written about those countries. If the government uses these criteria loosely it can amount to a severe restriction of what is communicated online. In this context, it also potentially very damaging as there is no legal check on removing web content nor is there a possibility of a legal appeal. This is not only (potential) government censorship but censorship of one citizen to another.

How will this law affect the human rights situation in the country?
Of course it is difficult to predict how the new rules will actually be applied, but there is a danger that individuals, organisations or the government that is being criticised for human rights violations, will try to silence the critics and human rights defenders. The other big risk is that people will become afraid to put information about human rights violations (including labour rights violations) on a website because the web content might be taken off. And what it even more likely is that web providers start screening their client’s content for possible information that they perceive as being against the new rules. These rules might be especially detrimental for ethnic, religious or caste minorities that are ‘under fire’ by certain groups in the society or even individuals.

ICN has already been involved in a defamation case owing to their website content. With this new law in place, what measures is your NGO taking to avoid similar cases in future?
We are not taking any new measures ourselves, but of course we will as usual publish factual information based on good research. And of course, our opinions remain our own. We are not going to censor ourselves because we are afraid that a problem might arise. On the other hand we have asked our government (and indirectly the European Union) to get more clarity on the possible extraterritorial consequences of these new Indian rules. In addition, we have asked our government to urge for a prior national or European legal assessment (on the basis of international human rights treaties and Dutch/European law) of requests from non-EU countries to remove web content by EU-based providers. Possible co-operation with international requests to give support to (practical and/or legal) action against certain web content should first pass this assessment. This is to avoid European citizens or organizations getting unwillingly and wrongly involved in such cases.

What suggestions would you propose to the Indian government to curb cyber terrorism and yet, allow freedom of speech online?
I am not an expert on cyber terrorism (I also do not know if there is an expected definition of it) and cannot comment on that directly. Yet, the way your question is phrased also sounds like we have we to sacrifice one or the other goal. It could imply: to have democracy and (human) rights, we have to do away with them! I think that curbing freedom of expression in the way that is now being proposed will do little or nothing to curb ‘cyber terrorism’. On the contrary: if you do not allow people to speak out on issues of human rights violations, for example, or construct barriers for that, it increases the probability that people will resort to terrorism. For fighting terrorism you have to detect the potential perpetrators and that cannot be done by allowing everybody, including the government, to take off web content that is not to their liking.

Stringent cyber laws are not new and are prevalent in the West, including the Netherlands. Why is the Indian government being criticized for implementing the same in the name of national security?
If we would be aware of such rules in The Netherlands using such broad terms and/or without any legal appeal, we would certainly support action to change it. But I am not aware of them.

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Landelijke India Werkgroep - Jun 24, 2011