The government has approved new rules prohibiting offensive content on Websites. But netizens believe the laws are too strict and could be misused to target those critical of the government
New internet rules which seek to curb offensive content and help maintain national security, have been criticised by netizens as being restrictive and impinging on the privacy of individuals.
The new regulations prohibit Websites and service providers from hosting information that could be regarded as "harmful", "blasphemous" or "insulting" to any other country. Providers are expected to remove such content within 36 hours of being notified of a complaint, and search engines, Websites and cyber cafes can be held liable for such objectionable material, Rama Lakshmi reports in the Washington Post.
The new rules were put up on the government Website for public debate from February to April and have been since approved. The rules, which are to be put before parliament this month, have set off a debate over free speech.
"The sharpest and most vocal criticism of the government and the political leadership has emerged from the internet," says Rajeev Chandrasekhar, independent member of the Rajya Sabha elected from Karnataka, who is mobilising opposition to the regulations. "But now a sword hangs over these people who blog and debate freely. This is not good for a country that has a predominantly young population, expanding middle class and is turning more urban."
The new measures appear to be a part of the response to terror attacks in various parts of the country over the past few years, after investigations have found that the attackers used email and such internet services for coordination.
Internet cafes are required to install surveillance cameras and demand identification from customers. At cyber cafes across India, people surf the Web next to large signs warning that they are being monitored.
Under the new rules, cafes will also have to keep a record of each user's browsing activity and submit those records to the government every month. After attacks in Mumbai last month, police closed several small cyber cafes in nearby villages that were operating without a license.
The government's response to the criticism has been accommodative. "We believe in freedom of speech through all media, including the internet, although there are some codes of conduct that are expected to be followed by all," says Sachin Pilot, deputy minister for communication and information technology. "We have sought to balance the rights of consumers with those of service providers and other stakeholders in this space. But we must draw a distinction between freedom of expression and the freedom of expression with intent to harm or defame someone."
Internet users, bloggers and activists believe that the regulations are among the most restrictive in the world, and they say they will continue to lobby their elected representatives to raise their concerns in parliament which is in session.