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.