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India wakes up to the threat of high-tech rumour mongering

Govt issues social media advisory after ban on bulk SMSes

Piyali Mandal  |  New Delhi 

The large-scale exodus of people belonging to north-eastern states from certain cities has led to the government issuing an advisory to all internet service providers to disable any inflammatory or hateful content that targeted people belonging to the North-east, owing to rumours spreading through SMSes and social media. Yesterday, the government had banned bulk SMS and MMS services.

“Based on complaints regarding content that is inflammatory, hateful, inciting violence and targeting the north-eastern community, DIT (Department of Information Technology) has issued an advisory to all intermediaries, in terms of the provisions of the IT ACT, for disabling all such content on priority,” said Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology Sachin Pilot.

He, however, clarified the government did not favour censorship, but expected “self-regulation” from the internet companies. For long, the government had been trying to censor content on the internet, drawing severe criticism from social media, internet companies and users, who stated this was a violation of the freedom of speech. However, the turn of events following the violence in Assam has once again given the government a chance to push its agenda, citing national interests.

Tackling digital rumour-mongering
The question is whether it is possible to regulate various social media platforms, now an integral part communication, not only for tech-savvy people, but also politicians, industrialists and even government departments (The Prime Minister’s Office is available on Twitter)?

A senior official of the Department of Telecommunication said the government was aware of the dangers posed by spreading unverified information. He added it would do “everything to prevent such rumours.”

According to a telecom security expert, government security agencies have the right to monitor content traffic of any telecom service provider on the network. There are guidelines under which the government could monitor the content of messages or voice calls after securing the approval of appropriate authorities like the commissioner of police or the chief secretary.

In 2010, just before the final hearing on the Ayodhya case, the government had temporarily banned bulk text message services. On numerous occasions, it has also banned SMS and MMS services in Jammu and Kashmir, fearing communal unrest.

Industry experts say the question is not whether the government is empowered to control social media or other modes of communication, it is the issue of trust and credibility. “Would people from the North-east believe they were safe if the Prime Minister told them so on Twitter or Facebook?” asked Supriyo Gupta, managing director of Digilogue Communications, a digital communications firm.

Independent Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a staunch supporter of internet freedom, says messages and rumours take on a menacing impact when the government lacks credibility in terms of providing safety to citizens. “If the government or the administration has a track record of enforcing the law when faced with hooliganism and mob violence, an average citizen would pause and think before being swayed by SMS/rumours/viral mischief,” he said.

Chandrasekhar had been vocal against the government’s recent proposal to the United Nations for a global body to regulate internet content.

Laws of the Net land
Pavan Duggal, a cyber law expert and a Supreme Court lawyer, said India did not have a dedicated law for digital rumour mongering under the IT Act, 2000. However, there are sections in the Amended IT Act, 2008, which partially deals with the issue. “The case in point could be Section 66 (A) of the Amended IT Act, 2008, which talks about spreading offensive or false information using digital medium or Section 66 (F), which talks about cyber terrorism,” he said. However, till date, no cases had been booked under the particular law, he added. “The government must understand there would be more cases of digital rumour mongering in India in the future. Current laws should be amended to incorporate mobile crimes under its ambit,” Duggal added.

Shooting the messenger
Subho Ray, president of Internet and Mobile Association of India, said issuing a ban on bulk SMSes and MMSes was archaic and not consistent with the fact that “SMS is a vital mode of communication in today’s world”.

Also, SMS and social media are just platforms. “Banning the messenger is not a solution. It is like banning the whole newspaper industry because of bad reporting by a single journalist,” said Vishwadeep Bajaj, founder, ValueFirst, a mobile technology service provider.

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First Published: Sun, August 19 2012. 00:39 IST