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When It Comes To The Internet, The Indian Government Needs A Reality Check

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Well, judging by what’s happened over the past year or so, offline too, but this is just getting more and more bizarre. The New York Times’ India Ink blog reports that the Indian government has asked ISPs and sites like Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to “prescreen” user generated content from India – that is monitor and moderate content before it goes online. The report names no one, but cites unnamed sources, adding that Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal is expected to meet officials from ISPs and Internet companies. Apparently, Sibal found a comment on Facebook maligning Congress Party President ‘unacceptable’, and told ISPs and Facebook to have human beings screen comments. A unit is also being set up to monitor information on websites, reporting to Gulshan Rai, the head of CERT-in.

A few things, assuming that this news is true:

– Is Sibal unaware of his ministry’s IT Rules? However flawed these rules are, they still provide intermediaries with safe harbor. That means that content can be published on these platforms if certain terms and conditions are specified, and needs to be taken down in case there is a complaint. What this report suggests is that the Indian Government plans to have two different set of rules for the same thing. Which is bizarre.
– It is impossible for anyone to prescreen user generated comments, and the cost of human screening would probably put these sites out of business. It’s like asking telecom operators to screen billions of SMS’. Filters can be put into place by sites to prevent certain words being used, but there are workarounds.
– To pre-screen comments online would curtail free speech, especially if the content isn’t by itself defamatory in nature. Agreed that posting messages online is also a form of publishing, but that line between communication and publishing is now gone forever, and the government needs to realize that it cannot expect regulation.
– What about privacy? Confidential and private information is sometimes shared with a specific closed group on Facebook, and could be – if anyone is still using it – with Google+ circles. Is the government suggesting that these messages be monitored by humans and thus be susceptible to misuse?
– There is more than enough personal abuse online, and you only have to see a few message boards to know that ‘unacceptable’ comments are everywhere, not just on the sites mentioned. And this has been there for years. Why now?
– ISPs and social networking sites are a favored when it comes to government intervention: The ISPs, mere pipes and protected under the IT Rules, can easily be forced to block access to social networks or even the entire Internet – a kill-switch if you will – as and when the government wants. Already, under court orders, they’re forced to block entire filesharing sites, to prevent people from uploading movies online. While there are potentially disparaging comments on forums (facebook is for babies, try 4Chan), it seems that Facebook, Google (Orkut) and Yahoo are easy targets.


The Indian government needs to have a more realistic approach to the Internet.

We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again – there is a dangerous trend that has emerged over the last year and a half, of the Indian government trying to monitor, identify and block digital (online and mobile) communications, and increasingly there is paranoia over their lack of control over the digital space. So:

– They’re trying to contain the spread of potentially threatening communications – for example, stopping SMS’ beyond a certain limit and give themselves the ability to block pages and communities online through the IT Rules
– Identify people involved through the Unique ID project and mobile number verification – Do remember thatYahoo India is in court, because they refused to share information on certain email IDs
– Trying to monitor Blackberry Messenger messages (which were used during the UK riots in August), and record calls, GPRS access, location information.

Judging by the report today, it’s going from bad to worse.

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  • I really, really hope that NYT did a “The Onion” here or their unnamed source is taking them for a ride. If it’s true then may be our govt. officials and ministers need to go to school to understand how the internet works. This time they are not even asking for automatic monitoring/screening but manual screening. How can someone be so whimsical?

    Or may be the govt. is hoping that this will generate employment as hundreds of people will be required to monitor the huge content generated everyday on sites like facebook, twitter and youtube.

    Medianama: please “manually” delete this comment, if it becomes illegal. :)

  • Will the media now go ballsitic on Sibal violating my freedom of sppech
    like they defend the templeof mediocrity called parliament or will
    they,as i suppose,meekly surrender??

  • all governments in the world now, and for the next decade or so, will be showing many many signs of fear and the resultant control .. they in a sense are fighting for their lives, as they have known it up ’til now, because the paradigms are moving too quickly for them to survive..

    patience needed, not for them to catch up, but for their collapse …

    enjoy the era :-) we were born for now

  • Bhanuj

    Oh god, don’t send these guys to 4chan, they’ll start a campaign to block the internet forever!

    • Disha

      ahahaha,how true

  • Himanshu Mehta

    Well Nikhil,

    You just let even those who did not know about 4Chan know about it :)

  • BDass

    Kapil Sibal was asking for special treatment only for PM and Sonia Gandhi as a select few. On the positive side he was not asking for himself and he was not asking for complete block of Facebook and media was present in his meetings.

    You see MNC companies like Google are beyond our control. You will know by experience when somebody approaches them with a problem. These MNCs don’t commit anything. They say if DIT or CERT-IN gives an order we will block the pages. For small companies asking DIT CERT-IN to block a web site is like buying a lottery ticket.  Even if they agree to block, NGOs with RTI powers are waiting to get the whole block list and make it big media news. Each MP should be allowed to block 5 websites a year. That will solve the problem.

  • Raju

    This is alarming. Sibel need to learn alot.

  • anonymous

    why govt is trying to make India the next China…..I am really started
    to think…where we have lost that prosper and free country that Mahatma
    Gandhi handoverd to govt…..govt is treating us as a slave again….in
    our own country ….what a shame

  • Anonymous

    First. They need to bring internet to the masses. No wait that’s food water and shelter.
    Next, you can talk about your b**lSh*t philosophies.Wake up Indian government , you are in a poor country.

  • tripti shukla

    This all are just the stunts of indian govt ..after bad defame in july in lokpal movment…!! they have already setup rules for media regulation who sparingly cover any such issue now@5f325677202b7089c0cb1377cc7f91be:disqus !! &
    The success of this movement was media and according to the govt so called “obscene and objectionable content”. That is why you see the line here “India’s acting telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal had stated
    in a press conference earlier today that the government doesn’t believe
    in censorship but instead they were seeking co-operation from the
    intermediaries to develop mechanisms on their own to ensure that
    defamatory, obscene and inflammatory material are removed as soon as
    they know about it.”
    They also know what all the laws are but instead they seeking the co-operation to settle down the issue.
    CHEAP STUNT ,KAPIL SIBBAL. But I believe you are just the puppet here being IT-Telecomm minister, real things going behind the curtains.

  • Jayanta Das

    actually govt.tries ti isolate the people….so that it could not creat any mass resistant…like Anna Hazare