We need to move towards a properly regulated internet

Updated: Dec 18 2006, 08:04am hrs
Numerous governments around the world have been addressing the problem of material on the internet that are illegal under their offline laws, and also that are considered harmful or otherwise unsuitable for minors, since mid 1990. The content which falls under this include pornographic material, bloggers, promotion of or incitement to racial hatred, political speech, etc. The nature of concern around the access to content on the internet varies markedly around the world, and the regulatory policy reflects this. What is illegal in one country is not illegal in others, and what is deemed unsuitable for minors in one country is not in others.

In December 2003, when ISPs complied with a request of Indian government to block access to a pro-separatist Yahoo!-hosted discussion group Kyunhun, all Yahoo! e-groups became inaccessible in India. In blocking the groups IP address, all other Yahoo! groups were automatically cut off as well. Blocking of a near invisible website ordered by Indian agencies in the name of national security, is reprehensible enough, but the blocking of an entire domain (groups.yahoo.com) is not justified.

Recently, the Bombay high court had asked the state to file its reply in connection with a plea demanding a ban on social networking site Orkut, for hosting an anti-Shivaji web community. This is reminiscent of the infamous DPS MMS incident with baazee.com not so long ago, in which the CEO was jailed when a porn clip was exchanged on the site without his knowledge.

There are roughly around 15 million bloggers around the world. In India itself, there are an estimated 200,000 bloggers. Blocking websites (Yahoo, Orkut) because of a few rude remarks would hurt millions of users who actually use the service for more noble reasons, inspiring hackers to create ways around the block and moving India a step away from being an open society.

Simply banning an entire site because of a differing opinion would make the nation to be considered not only as undemocratic but also web 2.0 unfriendly, and would negatively impact the diffusion of computers in society. This will also encourage businesses to relocate elsewhere. This current move to block internet content for thousands of users is a grave violation of freedom of expression and sets a dangerous precedent of censorship and control of the internet in India.

From an Indian perspective, censorship is difficult if not impossible to defend. But the position of the government and indeed even the citizens is that there are good reasons for censorship. First, as there is evidence to suggest that media can have negative impact on consumers, it is therefore wiser to err on the side of caution through censorship. Second, there have been incidents in the past of reports on the web having caused social unrest.

We need to move towards an internet that is properly regulated but limited to national interests affecting internal security and peace, where decisions like this can only be made standards defined jointly by countries. The trend of global interconnectivity means that attempts at censorship need to consider international dimensions. The internet not only throws up the question of what standard of censorship is to be adopted, but also suggests that local standards have to be worked out in mutual juxtaposition with global standards.

The writer is executive director, PricewaterhouseCoopers