Shut Your Mouth!

01 June 2011
Internet users at a cybercafe in Bengaluru.
DINODIA PHOTO LIBRARY
Internet users at a cybercafe in Bengaluru.
DINODIA PHOTO LIBRARY

WHAT ACTUALLY DEFINES A DEMOCRACY? It is a trickier question than it first seems, and yet it is worthwhile, at least every now and then, to remind ourselves of what constitutes the political system we hold so dear. Free and fair elections; an independent legislative, executive and judiciary; and freedom of the press—these are all vital ingredients. But what may be democracy’s defining element, or at least its sine qua non, is the right to freedom of opinion and expression: without this equal right to "seek, receive and impart information”, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights frames it, a system of governance of the people, for the people and by the people simply remains meaningless. Without a free flow of information, democracy does not exist.

It is with good reason, then, that bloggers, tech enthusiasts and watchdogs from civil society have been up in arms over two new sets of rules, notified in April 2011, that will impact every Indian’s Internet use. Formulated by the Central Government under powers conferred to it by the IT (Amendment) Act 2008, one set governs what is known as the liability of intermediaries. This determines in which cases, and to what extent, companies ranging from Google and Facebook to local Internet service providers (ISPs) are legally responsible for the content that you upload.

The second set of rules pertains to cybercafes. In a manner reminiscent of the licence Raj, there are new registration standards for these establishments, which go beyond the usual requirements for commercial enterprises and include detailed procedures to identify all users. Cybercafes will be required to maintain and submit, on a monthly basis, logs that detail the use of all computers in the cafe and to keep backups of all users’ browser histories, to be maintained for at least one year.

Anja Kovacs is a fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, where she focuses on the promises and challenges the Internet poses for democracy and social justice. She is working on a monograph on the evolution of online activism in India.

Keywords: censorship Internet website cybercafe privacy identification
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