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Two weeks ago, millions of perplexed internet users in India woke up to discover that they had been suddenly cut off from a clutch of very popular file-sharing and video websites. This was ostensibly done to 'protect copyright' and involved an Indian film body, a court order and internet service providers (ISPs). Indian cyberspace erupted with indignation. As later reported, there was much that was arbitrary about the action. It also raises some fundamental questions about regulating the internet in India.
In this latest instance, there were also, initially, no clear answers as to who cut off access to these websites? A notice telling users that 'this website has been blocked as per DoT orders, ' appeared first. DoT apparently meant Department of Telecom. After a couple of days the message was changed to 'the website has been blocked as per a court order. ' DoT later clearly denied it had issued any such order. And here lies one part of the problem.
No internet service provider (ISP) bothered to explain which court order, or what the issue at hand was. In fact, Indian ISPs have been blocking and unblocking websites on the basis of broad and rather vague court orders against piracy for a while now. This is clearly problematic, as there appears to be no system or detailed governmental guidelines in place to do such things.
At first glance, it seems logical. A court ordered the blocking of some websites and lawabiding ISPs complied. But it is not so simple. This whole saga is also a sordid tale of how casually the Indian government and ISPs treat the issue of web access in India, perhaps a fundamental right of sorts across the globe now. It also shows the lack of a proper system of wellthought out state oversight over the very firms tasked with connecting Indians to the internet.
In this case, the Madras high court only issued an order against a specific case of piracy. It didn't order that websites be blocked. CERTIN, the nodal government agency in question, did not issue any directives to ISPs in this case. And the Chennai-based firm that filed the lawsuit later claimed it never asked anyone to block complete websites - only that access to some specific web links on these sites be cut off.
Clearly, ISPs seem to wield arbitrary powers in India, either due to poorly-framed IT rules that were notified last April, or because of the apathy that the concerned ministries seem to display on the matter. ISPs (most of whom are also big telecom companies) behave this way because they neither seem to be accountable to consumers nor to the government, on the vital matter of free and unfettered access to the net (bound by reasonable restrictions, of course) which is what consumers are paying for.
Blocking websites is a serious matter. Done the wrong way, it is tantamount to trampling on free speech. The UN has said that free and open access to the web is a human right. Countries like Finland have even made it a legal right for their citizens. And free speech matters greatly to mature democracies tackling similar issues. Consider how when US legislators were debating their Stop Online Piracy Act, which allowed for something like what ISPs did in India, President Obama threatened to veto the act if it was passed.
No one denies that there are problems with the web. But the solution to these problems does not lie with our ISPs being willing to play trigger-happy cops. The internet is inherently disruptive technology. Copyright piracy, for instance, is a serious issue and must be dealt with carefully. In the digital world it is very difficult to sort issues out in a black and white fashion. That's the main reason why the same websites blocked in India continue to be available in most other countries, including the US - where the most stringent copyright and anti-piracy laws in the world are enforced.
But in India, state indifference to understanding the internet appears to be the biggest problem. Besides, the government keeps going off on other tangents. For instance, Kapil Sibal, our telecom minister, has been going on about how the web should be regulated. Shouldn't he be talking about how the web in India can be kept free instead? His ministry, instead of devising ways to monitor social media websites, should be working to create a framework where intermediaries like website owners and ISPs don't abuse the power they have over users. Instead of worrying about Twitter, shouldn't the government be working to create institutions and net watchdogs (on the lines of TRAI perhaps) that make sure Indians can access the internet freely?
If websites had been blocked arbitrarily in the West, ISPs would have been sued or penalised by government watchdogs. They would have been hounded by courts for abusing a just order. But not in India - a pity for a country that claims to be among the world's most vibrant democracies.
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