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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 20, Dated 21 May 2011

The ham hand of the state

The government’s new Internet Control Rules is a shocking and hare-brained attempt to muzzle the Internet

Mahesh Murthy

Illustration: Anand Naorem

AS I write this, The Times of India announced breathlessly that “Siddharth and Shruti Haasan are living in!” While its sister publication, the Economic Times, in an apparent effort to balance that with slightly more serious news, declared that “SKS Microfinance stock plunge faces regulatory probe”. Not to be outdone in dourness of reporting, its rival, Mint, from the Hindustan Times stable, headlined an article “CPM’s last-ditch efforts may fail to turn the tide”. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the Ministry of External Affairs provided to all comers a “thumbnail sketch of the principal Pak-sponsored terror outfits operating in J&K”.

There’s something interesting about all these otherwise perfectly boring pieces. Each one of them also appeared in the online avatars of their publishers and in each case these otherwise bland pieces can be censored without notification, rhyme or reason by any complainant in India without even involving a legal authority.

This feat of spectacularly irresponsible insanity is under the ambit of a set of hare-brained Internet Control Rules that have just been framed and passed under India’s Information Technology Act. Rules that allow anybody to simply tell a website or blog to take down any content that is in your eyes “grossly harmful, hateful, invasive of others’ privacy, blasphemous, threatens friendly relations with foreign States or threatens the unity of India” among a milelong list of potential no-nos.


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I’m certain any odd person can find the Shruti Haasan article “invasive of privacy”, the SKS Microfinance news “grossly harmful” to the company’s prospects, the CPM news “dangerous to State unity” and the government’s own anti- Pak claims as “threatening to friendly relations with foreign states”. And if you happen to be one of those who decides that your sentiments are hurt, all you need to do is to send a signed letter to the publisher and bingo, they are rule-bound to take it down. No legal authority to decide whether your claim is right or not but hey, the content goes down right away.

This feat of idiocy is hard evidence that the government is increasingly trying to muzzle the online spread of news. It has managed to rein in television and print media rather well. But online has evaded the government’s grip.

Indeed, the BarkhaGate story was not touched by mainstream media for many months even though they had the tapes. One magazine had the cojones to print the story — but it really spread like wildfire online through Twitter, email and Facebook. And only after it blazed online for weeks did the newspapers and channels pick it up and re-amplify it reluctantly.

Online is the medium that is scaring authority everywhere, from Tunis to Tripoli to 10, Janpath

Increasingly, online is the medium that is scaring authority everywhere, from Tunis to Tripoli to 10, Janpath. And the new rules are just that — a ham-handed approach to muzzling what’s said online. And it’s high time we did something to stop this embarrassing stupidity from being part of our canon of laws.

The first thing to do is to put this in perspective. Online is now the mainstream medium and ‘they’ know it. They are doing this because digital is now bigger than traditional media. There are already about 108 million Internet users and only about 103 million households have access to cable and satellite television.

Second, use a loophole. If you are scared about what you might say online, do so on a website that has no office in India — our laws can’t touch them.

Third, popularise the controversial content. Spread it around to friends. ‘Like’ it or retweet it.

Fourth, use it against the government. Put a thousand complaints against the government’s own websites. Start with India.gov.in and congress.org.in

Fifth, fight it. I do wait for the right case and civil society lawyers who can help stop this silly piece of legislation from changing the way we live and share information online. The Internet, as our babus will soon understand, cannot be controlled.

Mahesh Murthy is Founder, Pinstorm and Co-founder Seedfund.
Follow @maheshmurthy on twitter

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 20, Dated 21 May 2011



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