THE ONGOING STRUGGLE to protect the Internet from censorship in India has begun to attract much-needed attention, and not a moment too soon. But a series of recent developments that has placed the issue on the radar of the national and international media also reveals the increasing complexity of the issue, and the ease with which interested parties can manipulate an opaque system to block access to sites of their own choosing—the dawning of a new era of “private” censorship.
Previously, it seemed that the principal obstacle to online freedom of expression in India was our own government, which has for several years ordered blocks on allegedly “controversial” websites and exerted pressure on companies like Google and Facebook to remove content that government officials deem “defamatory” or “inflammatory”. But it is now clear that the government is only one of several hurdles to free expression online, along with entertainment companies, courts, Internet service providers (ISPs) and even Internet companies themselves.
The most recent controversies over online censorship have been fuelled by the efforts of music and film companies, who are determined to arrest the sharing of their content online before Internet penetration in India becomes more widespread. They have increasingly begun to approach the courts, arguing that the free availability of copyrighted content online necessarily represents a loss of revenue. The global debate over online copyright violations has been ongoing for more than a decade, and it is no surprise that it has finally come to India—but there has been little room for debate, at least so far. Courts have repeatedly acceded to the claims of entertainment companies without entertaining counterarguments.