Business Standard

Devangshu Datta: Beware the World Wide Watch

Everywhere, governments are attempting to clamp down on the Internet, using all the varied means at their disposal

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Tergiversation” invokes “weasel words” to convey an impression of saying something concrete, while actually being ambiguous and offering ample wriggle room. The new amendments in India’s are textbook examples of these terms that date back to Shakespeare.

Webhosts must take down “objectionable content” considered “disparaging”, “harassing”, “blasphemous” or “hateful” as well as anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign countries, or public order”.

How can anyone objectively define any of those subjective categories? Anybody could complain that some given content is weasel-worthy. An anonymous bunch of bureaucrats will then decide if it is. They don’t need to publicly defend their decisions. There is no recourse for the owner of any banned content. Complaints must be acted upon within 36 hours or else, the webhost faces a jail sentence. This is diabolical and ensures nobody will be willing to host any controversial content.

The rules also vastly increase the state’s surveillance powers and remove all privacy. Every service provider must log surfer activity and provide them to authorities on request (no warrant is required). must install surveillance software. This means goodbye to secure online transactions.

This tightens an already restrictive and opaque regime of censorship and surveillance and that is in tune with the global zeitgeist. Everywhere, governments are attempting to clamp down on the Internet, using all the varied means at their disposal.

Dictatorships know the Net and social networking can fuel subversive activities. The Arab revolts are the latest examples. Earlier, there was the abortive Iranian Twitter revolution. Online protests by Tibetan “splittists” and dissidents continually plague China.

Among more liberal regimes, the US and its First World partners have been deeply embarrassed by Wikileaks. Governments are also uncomfortable about tools like Tor that anonymise surfers and make it tough to trace them or block access to content.

Censorship and snooping are both complex technical tasks. The user base is growing exponentially due to smartphones and high-speed data connections. But governments can deploy enormous resources.

Along with direct repression, the People’s Republic of China has its Great Firewall. Another option is being explored in Iran, which arrested many Twitterati after the anti-Ahmadinejad protests. Iran now intends to create a perfumed halal online garden walled off from the uncensored WWW wilderness.

Politically, it is hard for democracies to justify draconian censorship and surveillance. Al Qaeda and its brethren are godsends in this regard. Security concerns have been invoked everywhere, along with issues of piracy, copyright violation and, ironically, privacy.

Twitter, Facebook and Google have been subpoenaed by the US to release information about users who supported WikiLeaks and follow the WikiLeaks Twitter account. The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales compared Twitter to child pornography after microbloggers “outed” a married footballer, who had obtained a superinjunction gagging the media from discussing his affair with a game show contestant.

Across the English Channel, Sarkozy also wants to “civilise the Internet”. One suggested method is for the French publishers’ guild to control e-book pricing — this could prove even more effective than direct bans. In “Operation Metal Gear”, the US supports the development of sockpuppetware to create multiple fake social networking accounts to influence debates. Australian laws ban online debates about euthanasia and drugs, among other things.

Do you want everybody to know who you chatted with, what music you listen to, what books you bought, along with your email, banking and credit passwords and PINs? Do you want a random bureaucrat to arbitrarily gag you and control what you read? It’s the one subject on which Obama, Sarkozy, Cameron, Gillard, Ahmadinejad, Gaddafi, Hu Jintao and all see eye to eye. So it’s already happening, and it will get worse.

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