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Responding to India’s internet clampdown

By Susan Morgan and David Sullivan

WASHINGTON: Last week, the Indian government missed an opportunity to show the world the right way to handle social media in a time of crisis. With rumours about unrest sweeping the subcontinent via social media and SMS and prompting mass population movements, even stalwart free speech advocates saw justification for urgent measures. Unfortunately, instead of choosing a targeted, ethically and technically responsible way to intervene, the government went overboard, requesting the blocking of a wide array of content.

As companies find themselves caught between government demands and their responsibility to respect the rights of their users, the private sector has a chance to demonstrate a human rights-respecting way forward.

The Indian government faced genuinely difficult decisions during this crisis, as any restrictions on content would have collateral impact on legitimate speech. India is hardly the first country to deal with this issue. Although Internet censorship is often associated with the Great Firewall of China, democracies are also grappling with how to balance security and civil liberties online. A year ago rioting in London prompted UK Prime Minister David Cameron to consider, but ultimately decide against, curtailing user access to social media and digital messaging.

Unfortunately, the track record of the Indian government on this topic is troubling. Last year the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology issued new rules for Internet intermediaries — search engines and social media — that require companies to respond to complaints about content submitted by anyone within 36 hours or face liability. Google and Facebook are currently in court facing charges on these rules, despite a campaign by Members of Parliament and civil liberties advocates to strike the rules down. Although Communications Minister Kapil Sibal promised a review of the rules, the government has yet to acknowledge key critiques and counter-proposals.

Against this backdrop the government issued blocking directives for some 300 websites, blog posts, and social media accounts, including posts that were actually debunking rumours, as well as news media and reports by journalists.

Now it is time for international and local companies to determine the right way to respond to the government’s missteps. There are differences between companies in terms of their relationships with the Indian government. At one end of the spectrum are local Internet Service Providers, the companies who are doing most of the blocking so far. This category includes state-owned BSNL and MTNL, multinationals like Airtel, and smaller regional services, which all need a license from the Indian government to operate. Twitter falls on the other end of the spectrum.

With no staff on the ground in India, the government has little leverage to compel them to remove content. Companies like Google and Facebook fall in the middle. They have staff on the ground and have been pushing back hard when the government pushes them to proactively monitor user-generated content.

Despite these differences in leverage, there are things both local and global companies can do to retain the trust of their user base and find an ethical way forward.

First, start with international human rights standards, such as the UN Human Rights Council resolution on the Internet that India voted for in July 2012. Companies that integrate human rights into their practices are going to be better prepared when the government comes calling. Human rights standards provide direction for companies in tough spots: they can make sure that at a minimum, demands from governments comply with local law, a threshold that the Indian government’s blocks may not have met, as the directives do not actually specify the law under which they were made.

Second, work together and with allies. By collaborating with other local and global companies as well as civil society organizations, academics, and investors, companies can more accurately gauge risks, pool expertise, and raise their voices when they find governments infringing on free expression and privacy rights. International cooperation with foreign governments, learning from best practices in tackling similar national emergencies, is important to ensure that efforts to address national security concerns do not produce vague and overbroad restrictions on expression.

Third, embrace transparency. Google and Twitter both publish reports with details on government requests for content takedowns and user information. Facebook publishes its reporting and review of content procedures and law enforcement guidelines to set forth how it responds to user reports and government requests. This information can be used for advocacy with the government. Companies hesitant to publish this information may want to consider finding a way to aggregate reporting across the industry.

Governments, especially democracies, should also be transparent. The Government of India should disclose the takedown requests it has made and articulate the legal justification for them, so as to build trust and garner support for legitimate law enforcement efforts.

Instead of striking a balanced approach to security and free speech, the Indian government unnecessarily escalated a counterproductive feud. The right way forward is for both the government and industry to embrace human rights standards, collaboration, and transparency. (Global India Newswire)

(Susan Morgan is executive director and David Sullivan is policy and communications director at the Global Network Initiative).


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