The World Wild Web

And a government that thinks it can discipline it by cracking a whip
CENSORSHIP
(Illustration: VIVEK THAKKAR)
A net café in China

At the right end of the cartoon, a little above the halfway line, there is a roller with toilet paper. To the left, there is a pink flush, attached to a commode below with three flies hovering over it. The commode looks like the Indian Parliament. ‘National Toilet,’ says the cartoon’s title, with this line beneath the sketch: ‘Isme istamal hone wale toilet paper ko ballot paper bhi kehte hain’ (the toilet paper used here is also called ballot paper). When Anna Hazare went on his three-day fast in Mumbai in December, Aseem Trivedi was there with this cartoon as a banner.

Hazare began his fast on 27 December, and Trivedi, a cartoonist, came all the way from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Along with other protestors, he turned up at Mumbai’s MMRDA grounds a day before. The next morning, clippings of his cartoons appeared in Hindustan Times and a Marathi paper called Prahaar. That afternoon, while Trivedi was at the fast venue, he began to get calls from friends saying that they couldn’t access his website, cartoonsagainstcorruption. com, which he had started in October by paying Rs 500 to Big Rock, a US-based domain registration and web hosting company. When he checked, he found an email from Big Rock that said that it had suspended the website after a complaint from the Mumbai Police.

After some correspondence, Big Rock gave Trivedi the name of a sub-inspector. The cartoonist tried contacting him, but couldn’t get through. The web hosting firm said it couldn’t reactivate the account without the complaint being withdrawn. A black hole had swallowed his website and he just couldn’t get it back. He learnt later through a newspaper report that a local Congress leader had filed the complaint on which the police acted. “Is a sub-inspector the Indian Constitution that he can decide unilaterally to block a website without hearing me out?” he asks.

You would be tempted to think that the State is out to get Trivedi. There is, however, a simpler explanation— laziness. The Mumbai Police’s cyber cell has no idea whether Parliament being portrayed as a commode is illegal. It is far easier to send an email to Big Rock. The web hosting company didn’t ask Trivedi because it assumed that the police had applied its mind because it is the police. But underlying this Kafka.net episode is the power that governments have given unto themselves to remove a cartoon even if they don’t understand it.

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Given recent contexts, and for purposes of convenience, let use divide the yearning for internet control into two—the whip held by Kapil Sibal, and that wielded by the SOPA. As India’s Minister of Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, let it be remembered, had asked social networking sites to get a toothcomb and run it finely through millions of online updates for offensive and illegal content. SOPA, or Stop Online Piracy Act, a law which the United States plans to pass, seeks to stamp out copyright infringement by holding liable not just violators but everyone who feeds off them. So if a Google search throws up a link to an illegal Lady Gaga MP3 file, then Google is to be held accountable.

These two forms of control are different. Kapil Sibal wants political control over the internet, the US wants commercial control over it. Why not, you might say. Much of the web today is a sleazefest of child pornography, terrorism, piracy, and, of course, swindles pulled off by your friendly Nigerian scamster—‘ Inheritance Notice!!! Mrs Simon has picked your email for an inheritance of $18,000,000.00, for full details contact her via email on: ruth_28@rogers.com.’ Which sane citizen could object to getting all this cleansed and fumigated?

Vidya Reddy is with Tulir, an NGO that works to prevent and heal child sexual abuse. In the past three years, she has found that almost every case of sexual violence they’ve taken up had a technology angle to it. “Like taking photographs and uploading it,” she says. Forcibly taken pictures are a problem even for adult women in India, where power inequities often mean that it is not only children who are helpless.

It isn’t just perverts. Terrorists too like the freedom of the net. Some are not even anonymous. A Somali terror group called al-Shabaab boasts of a Twitter account. It goes under the rather harmless handle of @HSMPress. And their tweets go like this: ‘HSM Martyrdom Brigade has this morning carried out a successful Martyrdom Operation against Ethiopian invaders in Baladweyne#JihadDispatches’, ‘War Statistics Office confirms 33 Ethiopian troops dead, incl 4 senior commanders & up to 72 injured; the number is steadily increasing’. Gabriel Weimann, a professor at University of Haifa in Israel, recently did a study that showed that terror groups are networking happily across social media, even recruiting. A press release about his study mentions a query found on an online forum of the Hamas’ military wing: ‘I have a kilogram of acetone. I want to know how to make an explosive with it to blow up a military jeep.’

Or take the suffering of Bollywood on account of internet piracy. Sanjay Tandon heads the anti-piracy division of Reliance Entertainment, which produced some of last year’s top movies. He says that before hitting theatres with Singham, the Ajay Devgn starrer, they scanned the net and found as many as 90,000 online links to pirated copies of new releases. “The main business of a film is the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” he says, “The entire film is pirated and available on the net within a few hours or within a day of its release.”

In this glorious pursuit to make the internet wholesome again, does it matter if a not-so-evil website is suspended? In war, there is always collateral damage. Maybe Aseem Trivedi was just unfortunate to be at the wrong protest at the wrong time with the wrong cartoon.

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Even in a perfect world, where the State is not corrupt or malicious, that would not be true. Governments and their institutions are—literally—slow thinking creatures. When a new phenomenon like social networking bursts out of nowhere, it is difficult for them to comprehend its nuances. It’s a little like your grandmother’s befuddlement over using a mobile phone. The standard response by the State is to draft either draconian or vague laws that give it overarching policing powers. To justify these laws, the State’s approach is to take the worst of what is out there, and use that as a template for the setting up of controls that police everyone as if they were the worst.

In India, for example, a 2008 amendment of the Information Technology Act diluted free speech provisions and put in place a blanket surveillance regime. Many countries across the world are doing likewise. A ‘Freedom of the Net 2011’ report, brought out by the American think-tank Freedom House, had this to say: ‘Even in more democratic countries—such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom—internet freedom is increasingly undermined by legal harassment, opaque censorship procedures, or expanding surveillance.’

Totalitarian regimes are at least open about their effort to control the net. China, in the discourse of the free world, is the online Mordor. By one estimate, it has 30,000 internet policemen glaring at what its citizens are doing online. Nazia Vasi, founder and CEO, Inchin Closer, an India-China language and cultural consultancy, spent some four years in the country, ending 2009. Back then, she could easily access social networks like Facebook and Twitter. In 2011, she went back to China and found it impossible to get onto those two sites. But the Chinese, she says, still have an extraordinarily vibrant internet culture: “In a country where its one-child policy is still dominant, [the net] is a place where single children can share their views, discuss fears and contemplate life changing decisions. In the country with the world’s largest internet population, being online is a part of life.” It’s just that they must use their own all-Chinese networks. Instead of Facebook, they have Kai Xin, instead of MSN Chat they have QQ, instead of Twitter they have Weibo, and for Google there is Baidu. You can’t have a free discussion on the Tiananmen Square uprising, but, if you steer clear of politics, you can be quite content online.

The West, the US in particular, considers the Great Firewall of China an outright affront to free speech. But you do not hear US diplomats get hot-collared about Burma or North Korea’s online behaviour. The difference is that China is a huge market, and the Great Firewall— put up to insulate the country from external internet influence— implies commercial damage for US companies. On 18 January, those who logged on to Wikipedia found a screen that said: ‘Imagine a World Without Free Speech.’ The site had blocked itself out for a day, and not in protest against Chinese but American policy. Google, Mozilla and 7,000 other sites also protested in their own way against SOPA. Following the protest, SOPA has been put on hold, but if it ever goes through, even Indians have reason to worry about this proposed law. It is actually aimed at websites in other countries that could be doing perfectly legal things. Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based think-tank, calls SOPA the “Great Firewall of China on Steroids”, an American attempt to wield a whip across the entire online world.

Abraham explains it using the example of a mobile phone, which can have as many as 20,000 patents on it. Consider a model produced by an Indian handset maker, Spice Popkorn M9000, which is equipped with technologies like a dual SIM card, an FM radio receiver, inbuilt projector, laser pointer, and so on. If it sells here for as little as Rs 6,500, it is “because many of the 20,000 patents are not registered in the Chinese and Indian jurisdictions”, says Abraham. “Suppose there is a website selling M9000 phones to the Latin American, African or Indian market. Under SOPA, US holders of [intellectual property rights] can approach the court, get an order, and seize the domain name or make the website disappear not only for US consumers but for everybody else.”

The US can do that because it holds the levers to the internet. ICANN, the body responsible for names and numbers on the internet (your URL, for instance), is an NGO with its headquarters in the US. Nikhil Pahwa, editor of the online digital media magazine Medianama, remembers a case last year in the UK against an Indian website that he won’t name. The UK party got an injunction and then went with it to a registrar in the US and got it blocked. The Indian party was not even informed.

Just a day after the Wikipedia protest, Megaupload, a file storage and sharing website, was shut down after a US court ruled that its uploads and downloads violated its copyright laws. The owner, Kim Schmitz, was arrested. Why was it so galling to the online community? Because Megaupload operated from Hong Kong and New Zealand. Schmitz, a German citizen, was picked up in New Zealand.

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The ‘Freedom of the Net’ report assigns countries scores between 0 and 100, with 0 being the best and 100 the worst. India gets 36, which means it is partly free (and has actually knocked off a couple of points since 2009). Surprisingly, Estonia, a former Soviet Bloc country, is found to be the most free, with a score of 10, followed by the US with 12 (what SOPA might do to this score, we can’t hazard a guess yet). Unsurprisingly, Iran is ranked the worst, with a score of 89.

The Indian case, on the ground, is actually eerie if not funny. By a strange quirk of legislation, not just governments, anyone can potentially yank a website off the net. The Centre for Internet and Society conducted a sting operation to highlight how. It sent random takedown notices to seven intermediaries like search engines and news websites. Of seven, six over-complied. “We said ‘Delete six comments’, they deleted 13,” says Abraham, “We said ‘Block three URLs, they blocked the whole website.” And all it took was a few letters sent.

Ascribe this peculiarity to the IT Act’s 2008 amendment, which assures intermediaries of legal immunity for only 72 hours from the time of their receipt of a takedown notice. To understand what this implies, consider the case of Avnish Bajaj, CEO of Bazee.com, an Indian online auction site that has since been bought by eBay. In 2004, he was arrested after an MMS sex scandal clip was found to have been sold on the site. Intermediaries had no immunity at all back then. The amendment now means that they cannot be prosecuted merely because their site was used for something illegal. But it also means that they take no chance once they do get a notice, and are willing to bend over backwards to safeguard themselves. “Prior to 2008, you would have to get a court order to get things deleted,” says Abraham, “Now we can just send a threatening letter and they are happy to undertake deletions. So instead of a judicial censorship regime, private businesses with absolutely no interest in protecting free speech now have that power, and there are no safeguards against their abusing it.”

Worse, as Pahwa of Medianama says, when sites do get barred, their owners get no notice at all. “In March last year, we started getting reports from our readers that certain sites were being blocked on some ISPs like Airtel. And then we found that there are sites being blocked on MTNL, Reliance, etcetera.” When an RTI application helped obtain a list of blocked sites, many of the barred sites they knew of were not in that list. “Where is the transparency?” asks Pahwa, “When a site gets blocked, it is not told why it is blocked, who has asked for it to be blocked, what the process is for getting it unblocked, or who to contact for it.”

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Internet censorship, TO Abraham’s mind, ought to be like salt in food—just enough to make it effective and not so much as to destroy the whole thing. But how do you create the perfect salt-shaker? There’s really no answer at present. Absolute internet policing cannot work without turning India into another China, or worse, North Korea, which has successfully policed thought itself. Societies that are not ruthless will always find it hard to enforce unacceptable bans. Countries whose institutions are incompetent will find it hard to implement laws even against evils that everyone accepts must be done away with.

In her experience with the police, Vidya Reddy of Tulir says that they still shy away from the role of technology in many cases. Although the 2008 amendment introduced a section against child pornography—right from its creation and dissemination to its consumption—rarely do the police invoke Section 67B of the Act against the perpetrator in a court of law. “They only look at the aspect of sexual violence that has been committed, and book them under appropriate laws,” she says, “ Why would police officers make the effort, increasing their workload? They’ll have to then send the device, computer hard disks, etcetera, to a cyber forensic lab to process the evidence.”

Moreover, even if the Government kills something on the net, a reincarnation can always pop up. The sex life of Savita Bhabhi, the fictional animated housewife, had gathered enough online popularity for it to be banned in 2009. “We went ahead and created Kirtu.com, which is now the new home of Savita Bhabhi and a few of her new friends,” says Puneet Agarwal, its creator. “We did lose some traffic after the ban, but most of her fans just got wind of the new address and Savita was back to her naughty antics as if nothing happened.”

So also with Aseem Trivedi, the cartoonist. The experience has turned him into a sort of full-time activist. He has floated a body against censorship, and goes about giving talks on the subject to students in Delhi. After his website got suspended, he just set up a free blog account, cartoonsagainstcorruption. blogspot.com, and put up his cartoons there. A toilet bowl in the shape of Indian Parliament can still be seen online.