Truth is really stranger than fiction in India when the topic is censorship of freedom of expression on the Internet.
Over the last week, two young girls were arrested near Mumbai because of their innocuous updates on Facebook. One girl objected to the shut-down of activities in the city following the death of Bal Thackeray, the founder of a right-wing party. Her friend's offense: She "Liked" the former's comment.
In late October, a businessman in Puducherry was arrested for his post on Twitter. He had alleged that the finance minister P Chidambaram's son had amassed wealth.
In September, a cartoonist was arrested on charges of sedition for the anti-corruption cartoons he had posted on his website.
In April, a Jadavpur University professor was arrested for mass forwarding an email with a cartoon about chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
While each of the above instances was followed by public outrage, the extent of the authorities' preoccupation with the goings-on in cyberspace is better revealed by a recent Google report.
According to the "Transparency Report" published by the web services company, the Indian government made the second-largest demand for web user information, behind only the United States government. Between January and June of this year, the Indian government asked Google to disclose user information 2,319 times covering 3,467 users or accounts.
Privacy and security issues were the top complaint and led to the removal of 374 items across Google Images, Picasa Web Albums, Orkut, YouTube, and Web Search. Defamation was also a common complaint and Google was asked to remove 120 items through 13 court orders and 35 directives from the executive and police. Religious sensibilities prompted action against 75 items that were removed through six court orders and executive/police advice.
The report -- the sixth of its kind from Google -- said Google complied with 64 percent of the requests by the Indian government. Between July 2011 and December 2011, Indian authorities had sought 2,207 users' data and Google had complied with about 66 percent of these requests. Interestingly, Google also received three fake court orders that demanded removal of blog posts and entire blogs for defamation with threats of punishment, if Google failed to comply.
The increasing surveillance of the Internet across the world is evident in the fact that there were 20,938 inquiries from government entities seeking information on 34,614 accounts, according to an official Google blog post. While the number of requests for removal of content was largely flat from 2009 to 2011, there was a spike in the first half of 2012. There were 1,791 requests from government personnel around the world to remove 17,746 pieces of content. What is of equal concern -- if not more -- is the rate of compliance. In the case of the US, it was 90 percent, while Japan commanded an 86 percent compliance rate for 104 requests. The UK made 1,425 requests and 64 percent were complied with. Brazil also got a 76 percent compliance on 1,566 requests.
It is not just Google. Other companies like LinkedIn and Twitter have also started sharing censorship data and making the information public. It is hoped that the exercise will throw the spotlight on unreasonable requests, lacunae in national laws, and blatant censorship of the Internet.
For instance, in India, every time an arrest is made under the Information Technology Act of 2000, amended in 2008, a debate is sparked off over Section 66 A. This section states that any person who sends by computer or communication device any information that is "grossly offensive" or has "menacing character" or is known as false and sent to cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will shall be punishable with imprisonment up to three years and a fine. It also covers false messages, or messages which mislead the recipient about the origin of the message.
It is now felt that the application of this law has been erroneous in every instance. So some corrective steps may be taken, which would enable only senior ranking police officers to invoke this section. Training may also be required to enable police officers to understand the intent of the accused better as well as what constitutes "grossly offensive" and "menacing" messages.
While this law brings under its umbrella any user and their activities, even service providers like Internet cafés and Internet sites like Facebook are covered under the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules of 2011. According to this rule, as an intermediary, Internet companies have to "disable" such information within 36 hours of knowledge of such an act. Is it surprising then that compliance with government surveillance tactics is on the rise?