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New Indian rules may make online censorship easier

John Ribeiro | March 7, 2011
The rules force intermediaries like blogging sites to block a variety of vaguely defined content

BANGALORE, 7 MARCH 2011 - Draft rules proposed by the Indian government for intermediaries such as telecommunications companies, Internet service providers and blogging sites could in effect aid censorship, according to experts.

Under the draft rules, intermediaries will have to notify users of their services not to use, display, upload, publish, share or store a variety of content, for which the definition is very vague, and liable to misuse.

Content that is prohibited under these guidelines ranges from information that may “harm minors in any way” to content that is “harmful, threatening, abusive."

Some of the terms are so vague that to stay on the right side of the law, intermediaries may in effect remove third-party content that is even mildly controversial, said Pavan Duggal, a cyberlaw consultant and advocate in India's Supreme Court.

While the definition of some of the terms like obscenity have been ruled on by India’s Supreme Court, some of the other terms do not have a precise legal definition, said Pranesh Prakash, program manager at the Centre for Internet and Society, a research and advocacy group focused on consumer and citizen rights on the Internet.

“Would creating a Facebook profile for a minor, for example be considered as harming a minor ?” Duggal said.

The draft rules are secondary legislation framed by the government under the country’s Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008. Under the IT Act, an intermediary is not liable for any third-party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted by him, if among other things, he has observed due diligence under the draft rules.

The new rules will give rise to subjective interpretations, thus giving a lot of discretion to non-judicial authorities in the country to decide whether the intermediary has observed due diligence or not, Duggal said.

According to the draft rules, an intermediary has to inform users that in case of non-compliance of its terms of use of the services and privacy policy, it has the right to immediately terminate the access rights of the users to its site. After finding out about infringing content, either on its own or through the authorities, the intermediary has to work with the user or owner of the information to remove access to the information.

Rather than recognizing the diversity of the businesses of intermediaries, the draft rules use a “one-size, fits all” set of rules across a variety of intermediaries including telecom service providers, online payment sites, e-mail service providers, and Web hosting companies, Duggal said.

 

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