Friday, July 11, 2014


Would it confuse you to go on a website called www.young.indians only to find out it belonged to the Reliance group and was not a Government of India website? Would it offend you if a website ending in the suffix .ram talked about a product and not the deity? Would new forms of web addresses serve to confuse you, excite you, or just like phone numbers, would you simply add them to your address book and pay no further attention to them?

Shakespeare wondered what was in a name, but then again, it was a time before Top Level Domains, global brands with billions of dollars riding on them, and internet governance bodies like ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) existed. If the hotly contested turf war over gTLDs, or generic Top Level Domains, is anything to go by, a lot is in a name.

Take the previously mentioned cases of .indians and .ram – which have not been picked as random examples . Senior bureaucrats from the Department of Electronics & Information Technology (DeITY), Ministry of Communications and IT, Government of India have written to the President & CEO, Chairman of the Board, and Chairman of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) of ICANN expressing concerns about releasing .indians to an applicant which is not the government of India. Their view is that that it is “likely that .indians string would be used in a confusing manner for many nefarious purposes, with long term damage to the growing Internet user population in the country.” Similarly, they have raised strong objections to .ram because of its “tremendous religious sensitivity” and the “attendant likelihood of misuse will have far reaching social and religious repercussions in the country.” In fact the Chrysler group, that sells vehicles under the name of Ram trucks and had applied for the gTLD for that very reason has even offered to sign an agreement with the Government of India to use the domain name with caution, and take down any strings that the GoI might find objectionable.

In 2011, ICANN decided to expand TLD from the familiar spate of domains – the and a handful of others. Predictably, there was a rush of applications from all quarters, with many comparing it to a gold rush, a digital real estate boom if you will. About 1930 applications have been made to ICANN from over 60 countries, with 322 new gTLDs approved. 209 applications have been withdrawn. In fact, India is hardly alone in its objections to certain applications, which have also included warning to applicants who have attempted to buy .islam and .bible gTLDs. The United States targeted applications booking the domains .army and .navy. Companies like Johnson & Johnson who wanted to book a closed string for .baby and L’Oreal for .makeup were also warned. The Australian government even warned an applicant for the domain .sucks for its overtly negative connotation. Australia also objected to the following: .cloud, and .wtf. Interestingly, the first warning through the ICANN GAC is known as an Early Warning Stage when applicants can drop out and get refunded 80% of their $148,000 application fees.

While objections raised on grounds on the possible offense of religious sensibilities might tend to be both predictable and understandable, such as Saudi Arabia’s opposition to gTLD’s that are associated with items that are prohibited with Islamic law — .pub, .gay, .vodka, what has been an unexpected but perhaps a much more interesting contest to observe has one from Europe:  over .wine (and .vin). Ahead of ICANN 50, France said that “addresses like .wine would put trade agreements regarding the sale of region-specific products like champagne at risk,” and that ICANN perhaps needed a “one country, one vote” system. In simple terms, France is worried that gTLDs could undermine the labeling system that wine has offline – that bottles are labeled by the region they are produced in – for example, to protect who gets to own or (in Indians terms) American winemakers have joined in as well, concerned that consumers will be deceived into believing that they are on the website of the genuine product when they are being influenced by an imitator. The crux of the matter lies in negative economic impact and negative brand value in this debate.

There have been some other interesting problems to have come up before the ICANN board – which consists of a number of internet governance experts with wide ranging policy and technical experience – one of which is a lawsuit from American victims of terrorism asking ICANN to stop turning over any domain names to Iran till it stops funding terror activities in Israel. As the letter states quite simply – “in business and legal terms it is quite simple – we are owed money, and these assets are currency worth money.”

ICANN has in front of it an increasingly complex set of decisions to make, especially as countries, corporates and citizens alike find their own reasons – moral, religious, economic, legal – to try and regulate the online real estate it controls. How ICANN will be run in the coming years is also under the scanner. Very loosely put, ICANN adopts a multistakeholder system – where a government, a corporation, a civil society organization, an engineer, an academic, have an equal say and vote in the debate, processes and outcomes – which has been, under the stewardship of the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Though the Americans had tried to downplay their influence on ICANN, due to international pressure, they announced in March 2014 that they would, ‘to support and enhance the multistakeholder model of Internet policymaking and governance’ give up this control. However, they clarified that they would not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution. This means, the US state influence over ICANN would not be replaced by any other mutli-government body but instead a multistakeholder body, which is the current internal structure of ICANN now.

Governments and corporations have already flexed their muscles at ICANN 50. France made public their doubt’s at ICANN’s ability to handle these complex processes. Joining them, the EU also stated it had lost its faith in ICANN processes. An African Union representative echoed similar concerns over the .africa gTLD. However, others have backed ICANN, such as Australia and of course, the US itself. Therefore, one of the main-stages of internet governance – which handles such a critical resource – will be an area to watch in the coming days to track its future. For India, and for all .indians too!

[Mahima Kaul is a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and writes about internet/media governance, inclusion and security issues.]

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Index: India’s social media “peace force”

Indians have organised online to stop social media postings looking to incite communal tension. Will it work, and is it a threat to free expression? 

A month has passed since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India, and brought the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party) back into power. Much has been written about his government, with observers either hailing him as an economic messiah who will fix India’s dwindling economy or a divisive politician who has built his career on the back of communalism.

Those watching freedoms, especially of free speech and the media, are among the people apprehensive about life under Modi’s government. While the prime minister himself has blogged about the importance of free expression, recent arrests, including of citizens directly critical of him, paint a worrying picture. Additionally, the rise of “communal posts” on social media, real or planed, have lead to violence on the ground, and a debate about how best to police social media and free speech online.

In June, a young Muslim IT graduate lost his life to an angry mob in the city of Pune, Maharashtra, due to violence that erupted after morphed pictures of a historical figure appeared on Facebook and WhatsApp. The pictures were said to be triggers for crowds to damage shops and public transport, ultimately resulting in communal violence and the loss of an innocent life. However, reports from the Anti Terror Squad of the Maharashtra police indicate that the outbreak of violence following the uploaded picture does not seem sporadic or unplanned.

The state government has issued familiar warnings about the misuse of social media by groups that are looking to incite communal tension. Home Minister, R. R. Patil, was quoted as saying that “anti-social elements are posting inflammatory posts to stoke hatred, bitterness and disharmony between sects”, warning that such posts could result in action not just against those who post the photos, but also those who “like” them. Of course, this was the same state which saw two girls were arrested last year for allegedly sparking communal violence – one for writing a Facebook update, and the other girl simply for “liking” it. Therefore, any action by the government needs to be tempered by what the fallout could be for ordinary citizens and their right to free speech.

But authorities are not alone in seeking a solution to the problem of potentially inflammatory social media postings – civil society groups are also trying novel ideas to counter the trend. Ravi Ghate, a social entrepreneur and founder of a community SMS newsletter in Maharashtra, has banded together with like-minded folks to form a group on Facebook called “Social Peace Force”. Amassing over 18,000 members in ten days, the mission of the group is to “stop anti-social messages on Facebook” by reporting them as spam. “It’s the easiest and technological way to fight the culprits who are spreading anti-national messages/images and stopping ourselves from development!” is the logic the group adheres to. Many of the new members have posted comments indicating their genuine desire to help stop the spread of abusive and communal messages. Therefore, once identified, all members of the group will report a message or posting to Facebook thereby pressurising them to remove the post before it can do any more damage. The group has also instituted a panel of experts who are meant to examine any troubling post and give the go-ahead for the group to act.

What has spurred this move? “How many times can you go to court,” Ghate told Index. “It is too expensive. And the problem is that by the time the police takes down the content, the riot has already taken place.” For them, “suppressing content at the source” in a timely manner is key. A technological solution within the boundaries of Facebook’s own rules of engagement seems to some a far more pragmatic solution than going to the courts again and again.

Seen from a broader lens however, the group’s solution seems to be to shift the onus from the courts to decide the parameters of free expression and “objectionable” content, to big, profit-making, multinational corporates. What might seem today a no-brainer because of some obviously mischievous content, could in time, pose an interesting dilemma: Should social media giants control the boundaries of (social media based) speech in countries such as India, based on their own internal policies, and not the laws of the land? And all this, because of a push by the citizens themselves, to bypass courts and go directly to the corporates.

It is ironic that “Big Brother’ – which is what some newspaper headlines called the group – when translated into Hindi could be interpreted as “elder brother”, indicating a protective instinct, which certainly seems to be the case here. The current mandate of the group is only to focus on religious content to keep “social harmony”. That in itself is not a straightforward task; just ask Wendy Doniger, author of ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’. However, this and the many spinoff groups they will inspire could morph into something they did not intend. Legitimate art, literature, satire and other forms of expression could become victims of the mob. Then there is danger of more organised groups and political parties taking to social media directly to suppress content — especially political critique — on a regular basis. And finally, those who wish to subvert social media platforms to have an excuse to incite violence on the street, will certainly find more creative ways to do so.

There is of course, the other side of the coin. Will Facebook remove content that has been pre-determined to be objectionable when faced with a large number of people reporting it? The simple answer is, we don’t know. Facebook has its own community standards, and these cover a broad range of topics, including the following: “Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.”

And a recent experiment by an Indian think-tank revealed that Facebook did not necessarily remove content flagged as objectionable by users, solely on the basis of it being flagged. As Facebook told them: “We reviewed the post you reported for harassment and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.” It is quite possible that the newly formed Social Peace Force will feel let down by Facebook as well, if content is not removed immediately. What happens then?

However, this latest development harks back to the problems with India’s current legal mechanisms. India’s IT Act has become infamous for a certain Section 66(A) which can be used to arrest people for information used for the purposes of “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will”. Public outrage at wrongful arrests led to the courts passing an order that no person would be arrested without “prior approval from an officer not below the rank of inspector general of police”. At the same time, the establishment is not above slapping graver charges (such as inciting communal violence) under other sections of Indian law — including the Indian Penal Code — for fairly innocuous activity. This has lead to some amount of distrust at the government’s own commitment to freedom of expression.

Of course, citizens have a right to appeal to social media platforms if they take offense to any content posted there. The point remains, however, that maintaining communal harmony and law and order is a tricky and layered problem. The role of the state, and the loss of confidence citizens have in it, must be addressed as well. Earlier solutions have included the state governments of Jammu and Kashmir preempting violence by switching off social media and YouTube for a few days, in the wake of burgeoning riots around the world because of the video “The Innocence of Muslims”. At another time, the government of India restricted text messages to five a day to curtail vicious rumours targeting a minority community settled in south India. India’s National Integration Council met in September 2013 after social media posts had been blamed for causing riots in Uttar Pradesh, and many states are setting up social media monitoring departments to raise “red flags”, much like the Social Peace Force itself.

A coherent and honest study of the abuse of social media platforms by fringe groups to incite violence should take place. Given the fast paced nature of the medium, the question for a country as prone to communal riots as India is: how can one control them? Is counter-speech to drown out hate speech a strategy to be employed? Is clamping down on free speech effectively going to reduce religious intolerance? Does bypassing legal routes and going straight to the “source” help? A national dialogue on the matter might be more fruitful in the long run than the flowering of surveillance groups cutting across the board — be they citizen or state-led.