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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Kabil Sibal ignites Sensor war

Censor war: Online India vs 'Big Brother' Kapil Sibal

New Delhi: If past incidents and people's reactions are an indicator, then those who frame India's Internet strategies seem to be flummoxed by the Web and don't really understand how the online world behaves.

Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal's suggestion that social networking websites screen content before publishing has triggered widespread anger amongst Indian Internet users. In fact, the hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal is one of the top Twitter trends in India on Tuesday.

The government is asking leading Internet companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook to screen alleged derogatory, defamatory and inflammatory content about religious figures and Indian leaders.

Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal's idea of screening content on websites has triggered widespread anger in the online world.

Popular technology blogger Amit Agarwal terms the government's idea as "unbelievable" and ponders over Kapil Sibal's awareness of the humongous amount of content generated every day on social networking websites and blogs.

Blogger and journalist Shivam Vij on Kafila confronts Sibal in a post titled 'Kapil Sibal is an Idiot' in which he urges Internet users to "write KAPIL SIBAL IS AN IDIOT as your Facebook status message, use the hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal on Twitter, and write a blog post with the above title, because there may soon be a day when he may prevent you from doing so."

Sibal attempted to clarify his stance in a press conference on Tuesday stating that the government is advocating supervision and not censorship, but that doesn't seem to pacify the Internet anger against him on the issue. He also refuted that the government is trying to enforce censorship because of Team Anna's popular Internet campaign.

Much of what Sibal is suggesting is not exactly new and is covered under the Information Technology Rules 2011 released earlier in the year. The new set of rules gives the government the authority to prohibit content of specific nature on the Internet. PRS Legislative Research's analysis of the rules highlight that "the Intermediary Guidelines Rules that allow blocking of content on the internet may violate the right to free speech. These Rules differ from the requirements governing content of other media like newspapers and television."

Most of the popular Internet services such as Facebook and YouTube have built in mechanisms to flag and filter objectionable content, but the government seems to want to take it a step further.

Facebook, in statement in response to the developments, said, "We want Facebook to be a place where people can discuss things freely, while respecting the rights and feelings of others, which is why we have already have policies and on-site features in place that enable people to report abusive content. We will remove any content that violates our terms, which are designed to keep material that is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity off the service. We recognise the government's interest in minimising the amount of abusive content that is available online and will continue to engage with the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue".

While Kapil Sibal may continue to stress that the Indian government doesn't believe in censorship, the government's efforts at controlling content on the Internet has been drawing China comparisons and India also has a long and not-so-illustrious history of Internet censorship. The Information Technology Rules 2011 gives the government more power to have its way.

India's robust Internet community is always on its toes to catch and publicise incidents of government censorship of the Internet.

By trying to enforce self-censorship by websites the government also opens the definition of what is objectionable to a variety of individual interpretations and will definitely stifle the rights of users of expressing themselves.

India is among the top countries in the number of requests received by Google for removal of content and access to users' private data. Google does not comply with all government requests, but the government is trying to change that.

A PC World article on the top 10 Internet scandals of all time seems to point to the fears underlying the Indian government's latest Internet censorship efforts, "the Internet isn't a dump truck, it's a series of tubes. And many a reputation has gone swirling down those tubes, thanks to the Net's ability to expose scoundrels, scalawags, liars, cheats, and fools - and then broadcast the scandal to a billion glowing screens."

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