Internet censorship in India

This is a topic I looked at for uni and found really interesting.

It’s a slightly longer read (and contains less unrelated references than my usual posts) and I apologise for that.

Indians protest against government control over the Internet

The Indian government has recently faced criticism from privacy groups, political opponents and citizens for what has proven to be excessive and poorly targeted Internet censorship.

Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to “freedom of speech and expression,” but this right has been seriously eroded in recent times. In the wake of ethnic clashes in the northeast Indian state of Assam in July 2012, India’s administration moved to block text messaging, webpages and specific social media URLs to contain rumours from spreading, setting off an anti-censorship firestorm in the Indian blogosphere.

An initial absence of mainstream media coverage in Assam spurred citizens to report on the violence and share emergency information online. The conflict also sparked numerous online rumours of violence between Muslims and Hindus throughout the country, many of which have since been disproven. These rumours led to massive unrest, with at least 300,000 people fleeing Assam, prompting claims by the government that social media helped fuel the conflict.

In August the administration—fearing further escalation of urban violence between Muslim and Hindu groups—instructed Internet companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter to block more than 300 web pages and over a dozen Twitter accounts it claimed were inflaming communal tensions.

Google and several other Internet giants were asked to censor some of their content.

The government’s goal was supposedly to prevent any additional threatening messages that could incite more violence, but just a week later the orders were being widely labelled as “administrative incompetence” and a knee jerk reaction. Furthermore, Internet analysts revealed that many of the blocked pages contained seemingly harmless material from foreign media organisations, political columnists and critics of India’s government.

This comes after a lengthy government crackdown in India on alleged misinformation online. In December 2011, Indian communications minister Kapil Sibal provoked outrage by calling for a system where user content would be pre-screened for criticism of the government before it could go online. (See: The Daily Dot for more)

Kapil Sibal

Kapil Sibal

India has a long history of using censorship measures to prevent communal violence, ranging from restrictions introduced under the British Raj in the early twentieth century, to more recent edicts banning Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and restricting derogatory portrayals of religious figures in Bollywood films.

I think it's only sleeping... Bureaucratic English arrived in India with the British Raj.

I think it’s just sleeping… Bureaucratic Poms arrived in India with the British Raj.

The current fear from the Indian government’s perspective is that the Internet, despite the benefits it has brought to India, could also be helping to magnify communal tensions in ways that could endanger lives, or “destabilise the delicate social balance” within the world’s second largest country.

A recently released global report titled ‘Freedom on the Net 2012’ by Internet monitoring group Freedom House, said that between January 2011 and May 2012, 309 specific items—including URLs, Twitter accounts, image tags, blog posts and websites—were blocked by the Indian government. The report also found that the government had only officially admitted to blocking 245 web pages for hosting inflammatory or provocative content.

Google’s latest ‘Transparency Report’ released in June 2012 provides further insight into the types of data governments around the world have asked the company to remove from the Internet. The latest report found that India had the largest number of government content removal requests of any nation in 2011, with 49% more requests coming in the second half of the year than in the first six months. A Google official said: “political comments were a prime target as the number of requests for the company to remove content from the reach of Internet users jumped manifold.”

Ketan Tanna, India analyst for Freedom House, said that more common than website blocking is the removal of content based on judicial orders, government directives, and citizen complaints. Criticising censorship and the Indian administrations disregard for the Constitution, Tanna said: “India lacks an appropriate legal framework and procedures to ensure proper oversight of Intelligence agencies’ growing surveillance and interception capabilities, opening the possibility of misuse and unconstitutional invasion of citizens’ privacy.” (Boga 2012) Legal expert Pranesh Prakash from the Bangalore based Centre for Internet and Society said: “I am not questioning their original motives, but I do think this is excessive and incompetent censorship.” (Boga 2012)

Political opponents have also accused the government of over-reach. Narenda Modi, a chief minister and member of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, posted a tweet calling the orders a “crackdown on freedom of speech.” The government in response denied that it was being heavy handed: “We are only taking strict action against those accounts or people which are causing damage or spreading rumours,” said Kuldeep Dhatwalia, an Indian home ministry spokesperson. “We are not taking action against other accounts, be it on Facebook, Twitter or even SMS.”  But evidence suggests otherwise.

The fact that censorship has escalated so steadily seems too obvious to ignore. Talks pushing censorship commenced in 2011 and have progressively worsened over time. The government has used subjective perception to define offensive or inflammatory content, even forcing the removal of a Twitter account that parodied the Indian Prime Minister.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “blocking content to help mitigate a volatile situation involving civilian security could be justified.” But, she notes: “when the government expresses equal concern about fake Twitter handles or criticism of political leaders, it begins to look like censorship.” (Crabtree 2012)  The issue has thus become a tussle between public safety and freedom of the Internet.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta from the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi, says that the government’s response has been misdirected, and is “simply exacerbating a crisis of trust,” not solving it. “These threats to social harmony are real, but like almost everything the Indian state is doing at present, the restrictions incompetently deal with a few symptoms rather than addressing causes,” (Crabtree 2012) he said.

The recent explosion of Internet users in India is also likely relevant, with over 121 million users recorded as of December 31, 2011.  To be clear, technology did not directly cause any of the unrest, but social media and text messaging—both of which are becoming increasingly popular in India’s enormous lower and middle classes—accelerated the flow of rumours and inflammatory images. The government, unable to counter the destabilising rumours, moved to shut down some of the means of their dispersal.

As mentioned previously, some of the material turned out to doctored images or videos displaying anti-Muslim attacks that never occurred. However the mere presence of the rumours was mutually reinforcing in that the more people heard about them, the truer they became in the public eye. (Fisher 2012) Despite numerous factors being involved, including communal tensions and violent protests, the heightened severity of public hysteria in this case suggests that the spread of rumours played a significant role.

An activist’s poster protesting India’s increasingly restrictive regulation of the Internet.

Walter Russell Mead, Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest magazine, refers to India’s long running communal tensions as “the powder keg in the basement.”  Mead suggests that with the already dangerous risk of ethnic combustion heightened by a population with easy access to rumours and “an apparent disposition to believing them,” perhaps the circumstances justified Indian censorship.

India’s readiness to censor the web is part of the government’s longer running effort to regulate the Internet, something which Western governments have strongly objected. In July 2012, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva passed its first resolution on Internet freedom. It called for all nations to “support individual and human rights online,” despite opposition by India and China.

Certain web freedom activists perceive such calls for censorship as little more than an excuse for “online authoritarianism.” They argue that if in a democracy the government controls, curates and censors information for public consumption, it contradicts one of the very foundations of a democracy. The government, by censoring online content, makes a fundamentally flawed assumption that people are incapable of handling information responsibly. They are however—despite not being fully informed—able to elect who can be entrusted with the task of determining public policy.

Online group ‘Anonymous’ have been vocal in their objections to censorship.

The poor design and implementation of India’s multi-tiered blanket surveillance regime exacts a terrible price in terms of free expression and national security. Citizens who cannot express themselves anonymously and privately could be forced to censor themselves – undermining the democratic process – which is most importantly founded on an anonymous expression i.e. the electoral ballot.

One argument for censorship also relates to this idea that society is incapable of handling information responsibly. Following this logic, without censorship society would have little control over the proliferation of hate speech or pornography, for instance. According to this argument, a “moderate degree of enlightened censorship” helps to ensure that certain universal values are upheld.

However censorship in general, and media censorship in particular, has no real place in a democracy. India’s government has neglected its duty of supplying accurate, useful information by channels that every Indian citizen can benefit from in the interest of public safety and social order.

Instead, in order to disguise its inefficiency, it has resorted to issuing blanket orders to censor the Internet. This comes in direct contradiction of the right to “freedom of speech and expression,” set out in Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.

Freedom of information is an important part of free speech. The Indian administration, regardless of their intentions, has been misguided and excessive in its implementation of Internet censorship.

5 comments

  1. Brilliant article Matt! Really interesting read and well researched :)

    I find any type of censorship particularly troubling. It will be interesting what effect this far reaching online censorship will have on the news organisations in India. The press is flourishing in India, its total newspaper circulation is the second highest in the world at dia came second with 78.8 million. These proposed censorship laws to be introduced in Assam would be such a backwards step for a nation who are hungry for news.

  2. Will be fascinating to see where the internet in India goes – I can’t say I know much about the situation, your summary seems fairly comprehensive. That many new users will undeniably impact a digital landscape already defined by the speed and seeming randomness at which changes can occur.

  3. Good article Matt. The situation in Assam has been going on for quite a long time and it is not unusual for the Indian government to use censorship to quell civil unrest and historically I think it has happened in other parts of India.

    I think the major press organisations and companies remain largely uncensored in India and circulation numbers continue to increase as more of the population becomes literate. In regards to the internet, India already has 150 million net users (according to major newspaper the Hindu) which doesn’t seem like a huge percentage of the population but is significant considering a massive section of the population doesn’t have access to running water. Also Internet technology is readily and easily available to the growing middle class in India so as we have seen in other democratic states, as the middle class grows the media in this case digital media will probably grow with it. It will be interesting to see how the government of the world’s largest democracy handles Internet censorship in the future.

  4. Mochacino · · Reply

    Matthew,

    I was both startled and intrigued by the concise facts you garnished this lovely piece of writing with. Censorship is a deeply troubling phenomenon, evidently not only for the traditional fans of it (Authoritarian folks), but also for supposedly democratic states such as Manmahon’s India. Gandhi and Nehru would have just chilled from ’93 til infinity. Mmyes

  5. Hi Matt

    I found reading this blog post a very pleasant experience. I especially like pictures you put between the text. I like pictures. My favourite pictures was the one of Google’s front page with a large Censored stamp. It carried the message very succinctly. Cool.

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