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    Op-Ed at Wall Street Journal: India Should Watch Its Internet Watchmen

    At the Wall Street Journal, Rahul Bhatia, a writer with Open Magazine in Mumbai, discusses the issue of online privacy in India:

    The month after terrorists attacked Mumbai in 2008, India’s government initiated legislation enabling it to eavesdrop on electronic communication and block websites on grounds of national security. There was no public debate before the bill in question was introduced, and hardly any debate inside parliament itself before it passed in 2009. In the law, there were no guidelines about the extent to which an individual’s right to privacy would be breached. And there was certainly no mention, and therefore, reassurance, that due process would be followed when it came to restricting access to websites.

    It’s taken about two years for the first signs of misuse to show up. And there may be many more, as the government uses vague discretion instead of firm rules to police India’s Internet. Various groups can exploit these discretionary powers to their own ends.

    Earlier this month, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), the body appointed by the government to protect India’s information infrastructure, blocked a text-message provider that sends out advertisements in bulk over mobile phone. It also blocked, a publishing platform used frequently by bloggers. Both restrictions have now been lifted. […]

    Nobody knows what threat, if any, these websites posed to national security. […] The guidelines under which CERT-In operates say that all information related to website blocking is classified. Moreover, its mandate does not include communicating with the public. Which is why everyone is in the dark. Nobody even knows how widespread the blockade is. There’s no hint of the process involved. There’s no course for redress for those who own the affected sites. […]

    Perhaps there are legitimate reasons for blocking these websites. […] The 2008 Mumbai assault especially put pressure on security personnel to be electronically vigilant, because the terrorists used satellite phones and internet technology to communicate. […] But if there are good reasons this time for blocking the sites in question, they’re unknown and unexplained. […]

    The larger impact is on the rule of law. The clumsiness with which New Delhi has blocked these sites undermines any legitimacy the laws have. Lawyers I’ve spoken with already say that the guidelines, which are open to wide interpretation, violate the country’s constitution.

    This legal debacle has implications beyond any immediate security concerns. Despite being a democracy with a vigorous free press, India can’t afford to take freedom of speech for granted. The concern here is that a statute intended to protect the country from terrorism may also give new legal cover to people trying to restrict speech for other reasons.

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