Saturday, February 23, 2013

How India censored one of its own websites

India’s University Grants Commission (UGC), amongst its other responsibilities, determines and maintains the standards of institutions of higher education in India. As a part of this duty, it had warned students that an institution called IIPM (Indian Institute of Planning and Management) is not a recognised university and does not have the right to issue certificates. The message on the commission’s website has now been blocked, following an interim court order by the Gwalior High Court in relation to a case filed by one of the companies owned by IIPM’s head — Arindam Chaudhuri — seeking to block defamatory content against his institution. The UGC site is not the only website affected by the order. On 15 February, the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) requested Internet Service Licensees to block 73 URLs carrying content criticising IIPM. The sites included news websites such as The Times of India, Wall Street Journal, The Indian Express, Firstpost, Outlook magazine, Economic Times, Caravan magazine, the popular blog Kafila, and even some satirical websites like Faking News and The UnReal Times. The court blocked a total of 61 URLs.

The court did not inform affected parties of the block order. The founder of Kafila, Shivam Vij gave a statement to Firstpost on the matter saying that the move was “against the principle of natural justice. The court blocked the URL of my blog without giving me a chance to defend myself.”

Indian news agencies and think-tanks have been questioning the method and the necessity of such an order by the court, and whether or not it opened the door to censorship. Noting the value given to free speech by courts in democracies, experts at the Center for Internet and Society has expressed fears that “the court order has moved away from the settled principles of law while awarding an interim injunction for blocking of content related to IIPM”. The hurry in which the court ordered websites’ blocking is worrying, and even India’s government is planning to challenge the court order, as it involved one of its own sites (UGC).

The lack of transparency in this action also points to two facets of the fight for online freedom in India. The first is that internet service providers are the vehicle through which sites can be blocked when specific sites do not comply. In an interview with Firstpost, Chaudhuri claimed that Google had failed to comply with a previous court order to remove “defamatory” content about his business. The other is that despite the length to which Chaudhuri has gone to curb any criticism of his institution, in a wired world it is next to impossible. Hackers have not only crashed his website, but social media users have also slammed Chaudhuri’s move to censor the web, and #IIPM trended on Twitter for days following the incident. They have, in turn, been copying the blocked text of censored articles online.
In the meantime, it has now been revealed that IIPM is actually licensed under the Shops and Establishments Act, rather than the UGC. It will be tough to stop this information from going viral, but Chaudhuri can certainly try.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Does the internet liberate or constrain us?

A recent survey suggests that most users think of the Internet as a force for good. But we need to pay attention to the various forces, both governmental and private, that are reshaping the Internet via global platforms, writes Mahima Kaul

A week before government officials from around the world left for Dubai, to attend the World Conference on Information Technology (WCIT), the Internet Society released a global Internet user survey which revealed attitudes of over 10,000 users in 20 countries. It seems that users really do expect the Internet to change the world. Eighty-nine percent agreed or strongly agreed that Internet access allows freedom of expression on all subjects. Only thirty percent felt that strong censorship currently exists online. Sixty percent feel there has been increased civil action and political awareness in their country because of the Internet. There was evidence of naiveté as well; despite being aware of cyber threats, most users (eighty percent) admitted they do not read privacy policies before sharing data, and half the respondents do not log out after using online services. Two-thirds of the respondents expect the Internet will play a strong role in solving global problems like eliminating poverty and improving maternal health, as well as improving business, science, and technology. Finally, more than eighty percent respondents felt the Internet plays a positive role in their lives and society as well. You could say it is a safe bubble to be in.

This is not the attitude of a small but growing pool of Internet experts who have been dedicatedly studying the growth of the Internet, shaped by governments, business and civil society. They exercise caution, and think it wise not to buy into (as the title of Foreign Policy contributing editor Evgeny Morozov's book suggests) The Net Delusion. It starts at home. Users go to Internet companies such as social media platforms and put in personal information because it feels safe. As we become politically active, and take to economic activity online, we must consider how safe our information really is. Can it ever be used against us? Will the internet companies we swear loyalty to — log into everyday — protect us? For example, in India, social media users have been in legal trouble over some comments they have made. All of those arrested under Section 66A of the IT Act had used their real names. Now imagine if they had used fake profiles. If the government of India had asked for the users real name or IP address, would the Internet company have relented? Is there a guarantee these companies would protect users, especially in an authoritarian environment? Rebecca McKinnon, who runs the website, which (among other things) tracks instances of censorship across the world, has another idea. In her book, Consent of the Networked, she argues that Internet companies should agree to never take actions that violate the human rights of their users, especially if governments apply pressure to reveal politically sensitive information. The recent publication by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, talks about the world being at a pivotable decision point and explores whether the Internet will free us or enslave us. The underlying contradiction of the Internet for him is that it can be used for empowerment and democratic participation on one hand, and surveillance and control on the other.

There has been recent media attention to hotly contested questions of Internet governance. Some countries, like Russia, have pushed the idea that a United Nations led agency should govern the Internet, instead of private and non-profit groups such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the company licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce to coordinate technical aspects of the Internet, like assigning Internet Protocol addresses. This could mean the difference between the free and open Internet as we know it today, and an Internet where "some proposals could allow governments to justify the censorship of legitimate speech, or even cut off Internet access in their countries" according to Vint Cerf, Google executive and co- founding architect of the Internet. Furious debates have been going on within select circles in most countries, with divisions even within civil society groups as to which course to take. For example, in India itself, there were varying voices guiding the Indian government on this issue. While the Center for Internet and Society, Bangalore and the Internet Democracy Project, New Delhi were adamant that the government not back a UN-led model of Internet governance, other organizations like the Bangalore-based IT for Change were instrumental in crafting this position. The end result, so far, has been the Indian government backed an UN-led system only to have distanced itself from the idea, most likely after severe public and media-led backlash at their perceived attempt to "control" the internet.

Different stakeholders such as citizens, activists, governments and businesses have very different views of the Internet, contingent on their guiding philosophy and end-goal. While there is no doubt the Internet can be a force multiplier for good in the world, the reality of competing interests trying to shape the future of the Internet to reflect their world order is here. Deep suspicions about the real intent of this meeting had preceeded the WCIT in Dubai because of this, and it is the same reason that in his inaugural address to the United Nations (UN) secretary-general Ban Ki-moon emphasised that the objective of the conference was to "ensure universal access to the benefits of information and communication technology – including for the two-thirds of the world's population currently not online."

By the time this digital divide is bridged, the Internet could be very different from what it is today. At Dubai's WCIT, held in December 2012, attended by representatives of over 193 governments, the business end of the Internet was a top priority. Going in, one of the questions to be discussed was the important, albeit complex, issue about the development of commerce on the Internet. For example, some of Europe's big telecom firms did not want to adopt "network neutrality" as the US has done. Network neutrality holds that Internet service providers should treat all data sources equally, and should not give preferential treatment to those who are ready to pay for faster transmission for their content. Those who argue for the principle believe that bigger and richer companies will be able to strike up deals to make their content much more accessible, to the detriment of smaller companies. Imagine if Google was very fast on your mobile browser, but all Indian search engines took forever to load. It would not allow for any start-ups to challenge the status quo. This debate comes back, once again, to the question of what kind of Internet we want, and the principles that should guide it. Today, most users don't think about these questions, and the vast majority might imagine they have a slow connection when certain apps/websites are inaccessible. However, this could be the shape of things to come. The WCIT did not end with a consensus, with the U.S. and other delegations including many European countries and India refusing the sign the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). One of the reasons the US gave for this was that Internet governance had been explicitly added into the treaty, which the US does not want. However, other reasons for disagreements included ITU's claim over a mandate over cybersecurity. Those for this, including some African countries, suggested the ITU can "harmonise" data retention laws and rules. However those against are worried that the ITU would be able to supercede national laws, and that in the future, these proposals on cybersecurity could help repressive regimes crack down on dissidents.

Ironically then, the Internet Society's survey reveals that a majority of users seem to trust that the Internet is intrinsically good. What it also reveals is the same majority might not be paying close attention to the forces reshaping the Internet via global platforms. They should. If for nothing else, someone needs to remind all the experts, businessmen and government officials that there is a bubble they are about to burst.

Friday, February 08, 2013

How a fatwa stopped the all-girl rock

The teenaged members of Kashmiri all-girl band Pragaash decided to shelve their music career after being harassed online, and a fatwa issued against them. Mahima Kaul reports on how the controversy has unfolded

Following a live performance at a Battle of the Bands held in Srinagar, Kashmir in December 2012, a little known band called Pragaash began receiving hateful and abusive comments on their Facebook page. The all-girl rock band has three members, all between the ages of 15 and 16. As media coverage of the online abuse was picked up by mainstream media, Kashmir’s Grand Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmad, an influencial religious leader, issued a fatwa against the band, declaring that singing is “un-Islamic”. Despite tweets from the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, in support of Pragaash, the girls buckled under immense pressure and decided to stop singing.  They also took down their Facebook page last Thursday. Zafar Choudhary wrote in Rising Kashmir this week that Pragaash drew “the ire of fundamentalists” because they were an all-female group.

However, despite being off of Facebook, the band’s identity is still being threatened online, as other pages pretending to be Pragaash have now appeared on the social networking site. Two of these were pages that previously existed on Facebook, but have very opportunistically changed their names from previous topics (such as cricket) to the name of the band. One is anti-India while the other anti-Pakistan. Any average user could be fooled into believing that this was indeed the band’s original Facebook page, and that these are their political views.

Meanwhile, three people have been arrested for posting abuse and threats on Pragaash’s own (now removed) Facebook page. They are in police custody until 15 February, and have also been charged under Section 66A of India’s Information Technology Act. The police have indicated that more arrests are on the way.

The Pragaash case yet again raises the question about the increasingly diminishing space for artists to perform their work without fear from any number of outraged and offended groups in India. Recently, an extremely popular actor from South India, Kamal Haasan, had to cut scenes from his latest movie due to major protests by Muslim groups. Around the same time, the Jaipur Literary Festival was mired in controversy when an academic’s remarks offended certain political groups, as Index reported.

In the case of Pragaash, while the guilty parties face arrest due to their abusive language online, there are reports that human rights groups are considering taking action against the offline portion of this controversy. Interestingly, they want to take Kashmir’s Grand Mufti to court for issuing fatwas that project the state of Jammu and Kashmir in a “bad light”.

Friday, February 01, 2013

India’s flourishing offence industry hits literary festival – again

A few days before the now-famous (and perhaps infamous) Jaipur Literature festival, the only thing most people thought they knew was that Salman Rushdie’s potential visit was being blocked, this time by elements of the Indian People’s Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.

William Darampyle, author and organiser of the festival, took pains to clarify that the event this year would not court controversy like it did last year, telling Index that festival organisers “have an open door policy, and welcome everyone for a reasoned debate”. Rumours about Rushdie missing the event due to protests were untrue — he was busy promoting the film Midnight’s Children, a film adaptation of his 1980 novel by same name.

Darampyle also rejected reports that radical groups did not want Hari Kunzru and Amitav Kumar at the event. Last year, the two writers read extracts from Rushdie’s novel the Satanic Verses at the festival, after the novelist was forced to cancel his appearance after facing death threats from Islamists. Darampyle said that Kunzru and Kumar would not speak at the festival since neither of them have new work, rather than any kind of external pressure. There were also reports of factions of the RSS warning against inviting any Pakistani writers to the event.

All in all, the Jaipur Literature Festival seemed to have invited an almost predictable amount of controversy that comes with the organisers’ tireless efforts to allay any fears that freedom of expression were being scarified for the sake of fringe groups. 

However, by the close of the festival, one of its producers was slapped with an arrest warrant while a panelist, noted sociologist Ashis Nandy has faced protests and has been threatened with arrest for making a statement that was misconstrued as an insult to India’s poorest — calling them the source of the country’s corruption. Nandy, who is a lifelong supporter of the rights of Dalits and so-called lower castes in India, explained that he was quoted out of context. His point was actually that members of India’s upper classes are less likely to be held accountable for corruption than the more impoverished members of India’s society.

Curiously, the statement was made on the morning of 26 January, and most festival attendees had no idea that the controversial remarks were made until they were met by a small crowd of 20-25 protesting the remarks as they left the venue.

What happened next has become an almost trademark series-of-events in India. The media picked up the out of context quote and ran with it. Police First Information Reports (FIR) had been lodged, with some senior leaders going as far as to suggest he be arrested under the National Security Act. 

Nandy was then shamed publicly as media coverage of the scandal continued to increase — meaning that most of what anyone could read about the festival would be tied to this controversy.  It had almost fallen by the wayside that 275 speakers discussed topics in 175 sessions ranging from literature to religion, from Kashmir to Somalia, from politics to, ironically, censorship. Despite this wide range of conversations and 200,000 attendants, the festival has been yet again overshadowed by the media giving airtime to fringe groups, leaving its conversations and debates out of the public discourse.

Although larger papers and channels in India allowed their coverage to be hijacked by the Nandy controversy, some bloggers and news sites were able to paint a more nuanced picture of the other discussions at the festival. As Rushdie put it at a separate event, the tragedy of India is that you are defined by “what you hate or are offended by” — and that tragedy is now at a boiling point. What should be the response to “offended” groups who call for boycotts of books, movies, talks, and even cartoons? Is it really an answer to simply cancel appearances under the threat of violence, or to limit freedom of expression to such a level that no one could possibly be offended? Or is it sticking to India’s secular and liberal roots — where every religion and culture has a place — and perhaps pushing media outlets to give as much weight to the progressive as they do to the regressive?

“We are living in a changing society. Our forefathers did not see the amount of changes in the last 3,000 years that we have seen in the last 10 years,” stated another Jaipur director, Namita Gokhale. In an editorial, the Hindu slammed what it called the “flourishing outrage industry,” which is a tool to acquire political capital, stating that it is “helped by a slew of laws that takes the feelings of easily offended individuals very seriously”. By “using the police to settle a scholarly argument”, India seems to have confirmed a liberal society’s worst fears — perhaps it is not so liberal after all.