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Jaimon Joseph
Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 11 : 04

The Web:the new battleground


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The venerable Congress Party's 'Chintan Shivir' on January 18, 19 and 20 in Jaipur, discussed among other things, a most perplexing problem. How to fight an army of Geeks.

The Congress-led UPA government has belatedly realised that the use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to mobilise thousands of urban protesters almost instantly, could be a far bigger challenge than their actual, political rivals.

"Flash mobs are a new phenomenon... sometimes they gather to sing and dance, but sometimes they can gather to protest also," finance minister P Chidambaram said in December, adding, "We need to take note of it. I don't think we are fully prepared to deal with it. We need to devise SOPs (standard operating procedures)."

The ruling party's concern comes after it was browbeaten by young protesters outside the corridors of power in New Delhi in December, to protest against the Nirbhaya / Damini gangrape. The sudden, massive, spontaneous gatherings caught the police by surprise. The flurry of tear gas shells and lathis they responded with, drew sharp criticism. Interestingly, the Congress' youth icon and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi was nowhere to be seen.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry is now trying to formulate a communication strategy based on a more skilful use of the social media to reach out to the urban middle class. Meanwhile ahead of the 'Chintan Shivir', Congress Party members have been asked to provide details of their Facebook, Twitter & YouTube accounts, in addition to family particulars, address and contact numbers, to update the party database. Party general secretary Digvijay Singh, parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath and I&B Minister Manish Tewari - all now advocate a more pro-active presence online.

Minister of State for HRD Shashi Tharoor, once reviled by his party men for his supposed online gaffes, and yet, the most popular Congress Minister online - with more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter, must be mighty pleased.

Sambhavi Saxena, is far removed from the world of Congress 'Chintan Shivirs'. A nineteen-year-old collegiate, she was at Jantar Mantar on December 25, protesting against Nirbhaya's brutal rape when she was arrested along with other agitators and taken to the Parliament Street police station. By multiple accounts, the group was illegally roughed up by a male police officer, drunk on his own power.

Desperate, Sambhavi used her mobile phone to fire off repeated SOSs. "Illegally being held here at Parliament St Police Station Delhi w/15 other women. Terrified, pls RT," she tweeted. It worked. More than 1,700 people re-tweeted her plea. Social media analytics firm Favstar later claimed the message reached over two lakh people.

The government and the keepers of law, were caught with their pants down. A teenager with a smartphone punctured their claims of patience and concern.

The social media phenomenon was probably noticed a year and a half ago, with protests led successively by activist Anna Hazare, yoga teacher Baba Ramdev and Arvind Kejriwal - co-ordinated by sophisticated social media campaigns. But its been silently building for some time.

India has over 120 million internet users - one in ten Indians is on the Web. India is among the top five worldwide in terms of Facebook users, with more than 60 million active users. We're also the sixth largest user base for Twitter, according to SemioCast, a Paris-based research firm - it claims India has around 18 million Twitter accounts. Nearly 45 per cent of Indian web users, connect on social media to discuss politics, according to a recent Pew Research study. Only Arab countries scored higher.

According to comScore, a company that measures Internet trends, India has been the fastest growing online market in the last 12 months among BRIC nations, growing more than 41 per cent last year. 75 per cent of India's online users are below the age of 35, making it one of the youngest Net-connected populations.

This unfettered flow of information online and on cell phone networks does have an ugly side. The mischievous rumour-mongering in the wake of the Assam riots was a case in point, as MMSs and incendiary text messages triggered the largest internal exodus of Indians since partition - people from Bangalore, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad fled to their hometowns in the Northeast.

But more often than not, the government has followed an iron fist policy, coming down hard on even innocent web users. Its policy of limited control over the Internet changed dramatically after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks - when it found the terrorists might have communicated with their handlers online.

Since then, the government has increasingly tried to monitor, censor and control personal communications such as telephone calls, email messages, and financial transactions. Hastily amended laws, like Section 69A of the IT Act, gave any government agency the right to "intercept, monitor or decrypt" information online. The year 2011 saw the adoption of regulations increasing surveillance in cyber cafes. Also, the IT (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, issued under Section 79 of the IT Act, were used by the government and non-state actors to force intermediaries, including social media applications, to remove content vaguely defined as "offensive" and potentially pre-screen user-generated content.

The government also started blocking user accounts and web pages. In 2012 alone, it blocked 663 web pages and asked Indian Internet service providers to block 16 Twitter accounts, including those of right-wing leaders and journalists. In the first half of 2012, the government made 2,319 requests for information on 3,467 user accounts of search engine giant Google. Google complied with 64% of these.

It began innocuously enough, by tinkering with Section 66 (A) of the Information Technology Act of 2000. When the IT Amendment Act, 2008 was hurriedly passed on December 22, 2008 by the Lok Sabha, and a day after by the Rajya Sabha - only a few sensed the storm it would bring. It was legally put into practice from October 27, 2009.

66A: Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc.

Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,-

(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character;

(b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,

(c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.

The idea behind Section 66(A) was to help the police take decisive action when faced with subversive activities on a warp-speed Internet. Instead, it became a joke.

In October 2012, Ravi Srinivasan, owner of plastic packaging material factory was arrested and let off on bail for joking about finance minister P Chidambaram's son, Karti. In September, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was put in jail and later released. In April, Ambikesh Mahaptra of Jadavpur University in Kolkata was arrested for a cartoon poking fun at West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee and Railway Minister Mukul Roy.

But December 2012 saw the grossest example of all. Twenty one year old Shaheen Dhada and her friend Rini Srinivas were jailed because of an innocuous Facebook post. The two were arrested in Palghar near Mumbai, following a complaint from local Shiv Sena workers against Shaheen's post on Facebook, where she questioned the need for a 'bandh' being observed in Mumbai on the death of the Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Rini had merely clicked 'Like' on her friends post.

All these people went to jail, because Section 66 (A) is vaguely, ambiguously worded. What might seem 'grossly offensive' or of 'menacing character' to you, could seem a harmless joke to me - the law doesn't define exactly what those words might mean. Similarly, causing "annoyance" or "inconvenience" to someone might be a lesser offence than "criminal intimidation", yet the law prescribes the same penalty for both - jail for up to three years plus fine.

Offences under the act are bailable. But since trials in India typically take five-six years, Section 66(A) is a prescription for long periods of mental agony.

After the Palghar furore, the government issued guidelines to the states that complaints under the controversial Section 66A of the IT Act, which criminalises "causing annoyance or inconvenience" online or electronically, can be registered only with the permission of an officer at or above the rank of deputy commissioner of police, and inspector general in metro cities. However, it did not amend the terms in the Section that are said to be vague and subject to interpretation.

Similar guidelines might soon be issued to clarify the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, which have also been heavily criticised. The rules were notified in April 2011 with the aim of clearly defining the role of intermediaries-including telcos, Internet and web-hosting service providers and search engines-while hosting content on their networks and websites along with ensuring some level of due diligence by them.

But the rules require hosts or owners of the websites to take action against "objectionable content" within 36 hours of receiving a complaint. Experts argue that the rules could lead to indirect censorship. Many intermediaries have meekly complied with illegitimate requests to remove content from websites in a bid to avoid litigation.

The legality of Section 66(A) is currently being re-examined by the Supreme Court of India, after a Public Interest Litigation filed recently by a young student. So far, the government has remained unfazed. Minister of Communications and IT, Kapil Sibal recently said, "Just because some people do not follow it properly, we cannot entirely scrap the law. Can we do away with penal code? We cannot."

IT's not much better abroad

Minister for Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal made a marvelous speech at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan, in November 2012. He talked about the need to put in place a "collaborative, consultative, inclusive and consensual" system for dealing with policies involving the Internet.

He claimed the term "Internet governance" is an oxymoron. The concept of governance is for dealing with the physical world he said - it has no relevance in cyberspace. Of course, he made no mention of the storm his ministry has been raising in his own country.

But when it comes to such doublespeak, the minister is in exalted company internationally.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), comes under the aegis of the United Nations (UN). It is primarily a technical body that administers a 24-year-old treaty, the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) - basic principles that govern global communication systems. It has 193 member nations and usually regulates radio spectrum, assigns satellite orbits and works to improve telecom infrastructure in the developing world.

Between December 3-14 2012, it organised a World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT )in Dubai. The underlying idea was to establish legally binding treaties about the Internet, similar to the WTO framework for trade and commerce. And if possible, build international consensus on how to deal with vexing issues on the web.

For example, the entire continent of Africa accounts for just 7 per cent of the 2.4 billion people who use the Net worldwide. While there are many reasons for such low penetration, at the WCIT, some African countries raised the issue of US control of the global Internet. Sudan has for long, complained about Washington's sanctions that entail denial of Internet services to not just rogue governments, but all citizens in those countries, innocent and guilty alike.

In 2012 alone, there were 27 instances when companies from Google to Microsoft and Paypal to Oracle were asked to cut off their services to Sudan. Which is why at the WCIT, the African contingent insisted on a resolution about a right to access Internet services.

India, Brazil and other democracies from the developing world demanded a change in ITRs for another reason. Money. Companies like Google (2011 profit: $37.9 billion) and Facebook currently do not have to pay telecom companies in these countries for use of their networks to deliver content. According to a Bloomberg report from December 10, Google "avoided about $2 billion in worldwide income taxes in 2011 by shifting $9.8 billion in revenues into a Bermuda shell company, almost double the total from three years before".

Developing countries want these Internet behemoths to pay for access to their markets. And use that money to build their own Internet infrastructure.

Countries like Russia and China came to the WCIT with another intention. Of diluting America's control on the outfits that make the Internet work.

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is the international body that assigns names and addresses for every entity on the web. Since the Internet was invented and nurtured in America, ICANN is based in the US. Although the US claims that ICANN is a private, non-profit corporation, it is actively overseen by the US Commerce Department.

Interestingly, the US is currently mulling what has been called the Internet kill switch legislation, which could have application across the world. In the past, during the Iraq invasion, the US government asked ICANN to terminate services to Iraq's top-level domain name ".iq" and thereafter all websites with the domain name ".iq" disappeared overnight. This isn't widely quoted in international fora, but countries like Russia and China believe the US has "taken advantage of its control over the Internet to launch an invisible war against disobedient countries and to intimidate and threaten other countries".

With a number of countries pointing fingers at the US, America tried to take the moral high ground. It goaded Western global powers, giant Internet companies, private telecom corporations and civil liberties organisations into a frenzied defence of the way things stand.

The Internet, they said, should not be governed by the ITU. That would change the multi-stakeholder approach, which currently marks the way the Internet is governed, and replace it with government control that would curb digital freedom. There might be some weight in that argument.

In 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin famously told ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure, "Russia is keen on pursuing the idea of establishing international control over the Internet, using monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the ITU."

A few months prior to the WCIT in Dubai, countries including Russia and Arab states, proposed measures that would, through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), grant disproportional power to countries to control the Internet in the name of security measures. Several proposals, explicitly stated in the proposed Article 5A that countries should be able to "undertake appropriate measures, individually or in cooperation with other Member States" to tackle issues relating to "confidence and security of telecommunications/ICTs".

Another proposal by African member states recommended that nations should "harmonise their laws" on data retention. Intermediaries would have to retain public data for a long period so that governments can access it whenever they please. Western experts saw in all this an attempt to monitor and censor traffic on the web.

Yet, these commentators made no mention of the fact that influential western telecom industry associations like ATIS (Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), help many countries implement sophisticated surveillance programmes online.

Or that the International Chamber of Commerce wants to establish surveillance centre hubs in several countries, to help governments intercept communications and get data stored in cloud servers abroad. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), urges member states "to adopt global standards for surveillance", calling on the country's government to create a "centralised monitoring system" and "install state-of-the-art legal intercept equipment".

So the West isn't exactly a paragon of virtue when it comes to protecting privacy and free speech online.

Yet, India would still take the international award for double speak about the Internet.

In a statement to the UN General Assembly in New York on October 26, 2011, India sought the creation of a UN Committee on Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) in order to democratise global Internet governance. This was suggested as an alternative to US or European control over the web and was further discussed in May 2012 in Geneva.

It argued for a purely government-run multilateral body, governed by the United Nations. Civil society, the private sector, international organisations as well as technical and academic groups would only have a minor advisory role. The proposal was floated without any public consultation in India, despite the fact that it would impact 800 million mobile and 100 million Indian Internet users.

Curiously, this came just months after Anna Hazare's social media fuelled anti-corruption agitation in August 2011. After drawing flak from both civil society in India and industry bodies in the west, the government backtracked. At the Budapest Cyber Space Conference in October 2012, minister of state for telecom Sachin Pilot denied his government wanted overarching control over the web in India.

At the WCIT in Dubai, India backtracked even further. After playing along with most of the proposals, the Indian delegation refused to sign the resolutions at the last moment - pleading it needed to talk to domestic stakeholders and get approval from the cabinet.    

What is clear is that a larger geopolitical fight is playing out with the Internet as disputed terrain.


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More about Jaimon Joseph

I've always been scared around gadgets and software. And in awe of people who're good with them. After three years of science and tech reporting though, I think I'm starting to get the hang of things. Before this, I covered automobiles, health, careers and business, for seven years. Nice thing about technology is, it lets me poach into all those fields once in a while. I love this job. But I'm not sure how I managed to land it. I did my BA in Advertising from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce and MA in Journalism from Madurai Kamaraj University. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a guitar player and a footballer but sucked in all those fields. I can play the flute and harmonica though. And I have an interest in machines that move - it was cars and bikes earlier but considering there's nothing revolutionary happening there, it's military stuff now. I'm the sort who drools over figures. Not the 36-24-36 types. But top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption, drag co-efficient. I drive an Alto though. And usually take the Metro to work.
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