Not happy with what you saw on a website? In India, new rules issued this month enable you to simply have the content taken down. But advocates of free speech in India and abroad say this could severely restrict freedom of expression on the internet.
The new rules were designed in keeping with India’s law on internet freedom after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The law allowed authorities to closely monitor communications through the internet if national security was in danger.
The revised law, the Information Technology Rules 2011, now also allows authorities to shut down web sites that offer disparaging, harassing, blasphemous or hateful content.
Gerard Oonk is the director of the Dutch NGO The India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN). And he's worried about the consequences of these new rules.
“Anyone who finds certain web content objectionable now has the right to have that site shut down or to have the content removed. You would think that there would be a legal authority that would screen any complaint, but the new law stipulates that such an authority is not necessary. It’s incredible, really.”
Mr Oonk is also worried about the fact that there’s no mechanism for web site operators to defend their content or appeal to a decision to take down content. Web site operators, including intermediaries such as YouTube, Facebook or Google have to respond to any demand within 36 hours.
“It is a threat to human rights and human rights defenders. Web sites may not be able to publish anything anymore that is critical of the government or authorities, as they'll be afraid that they'll be shut down by their opponents. It’s a worrying development.”
ICN knows what it’s like to be curtailed by India’s strict internet laws. In 2007, the organisation was taken to court by an Indian company for defamation after a critical report and other articles on the ICN website. The parties managed to reach a settlement, but the legal wrangling took a long time to be resolved.
Mr Oonk is now worried that his organisation, which at times is critical towards Indian authorities and businesses, might now face more court cases, as the new law can also affect foreign web sites.
“Criteria such as 'disparaging, hateful or blasphemous' are so broad that they can be interpreted to come down on a lot of critical information and opinions. In fact, according to these loose descriptions it’s possible to call anything hateful if you want to. So it might become easier to have something taken off a website.”
While the new rules have ruffled a few feathers in India, one could argue that there are many more countries in the world – also in the West – where governments have put stricter rules on what can and cannot be published on web sites. Even in the Netherlands, web site operators can be taken to court for hateful or blasphemous content.
Mr Oonk acknowledges that. “But here, there’s always the judge who ultimately decides whether web content is crossing a line or not. Any complaint should have legal ground. In India, under the new rules, that judicial step doesn’t exist.”
The ICN will write a letter to Dutch Foreign Secretary Uri Rosenthal, asking him to express his worries over the new laws to the Indian government and take up the matter in the EU. “But we won’t change the content or nature of our own website,” Mr Oonk says. “We know that we work in a careful, responsible manner according to basic journalistic rules. That won’t change.”