Playing favorites across a bordered Internet

Earlier this month Guernica magazine published the first article I’ve found time to write in over a year. (The Ranking Digital Rights project and related work has been keeping me incredibly busy.) It’s about Internet companies as gatekeepers across an Internet on which national borders are more powerful than many people (especially in the West) realize. It begins with a description of the video above:

Last November, volunteers with a group called Pakistan for All filmed a man wandering the streets of Karachi wearing a cloth-covered cardboard box over his torso. The box was painted on four sides with YouTube logos, a silver TV antenna affixed to the top. He held a hand-painted sign: “Hug me if you want me back.”

Using The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” as a soundtrack, filmmaker Ziad Zafar created a short and cheeky video featuring men, women, and children hugging the YouTube mascot in locations around Karachi. “God, please let them open YouTube,” one young man said to the camera. Another complained that his personal channel was now inaccessible: “I used to have so many videos.”

After explaining why YouTube is blocked in Pakistan I continue:

Public frustration over YouTube censorship in Pakistan is just one of many points of worldwide friction between old and new information sovereignties: sovereign nation-states versus globally networked commercial “sovereigns” of cyberspace. These commercial sovereigns like YouTube’s parent company, Google, are the new arbiters—sometimes censors, sometimes champions—of a large and growing percentage of citizen speech all over the world.

To find out how and what it all means click here to read the full article.

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Foreign Policy: The War for India’s Internet

Protests against Internet censorship are taking place this weekend in several cities across India. People are already posting photos and updates to Twitter. Follow the #opindia hashtag keep abreast of latest developments.

On Wednesday Foreign Policy published my latest commentary on The War for India’s Internet. Why does this war matter for the rest of the world? I explain:

Escalating political and legal battles over Internet regulation in India are the latest front in a global struggle for online freedom — not only in countries like China and Iran where the Internet is heavily censored and monitored by autocratic regimes, but also in democracies where the political motivations for control are much more complicated. Democratically elected governments all over the world are failing to find the right balance between demands from constituents to fight crime, control hate speech, keep children safe, and protect intellectual property, and their duty to ensure and respect all citizens’ rights to free expression and privacy. Popular online movements — many of them globally interconnected — are arising in response to these failures.

Only about 10 percent of India’s population uses the web, making it unlikely that Internet freedom will be a decisive ballot-box issue anytime soon. Yet activists are determined to punish New Delhi’s “humorless babus,” as one columnist recently called India’s censorious politicians and bureaucrats, in the country’s media. Grassroots organizers are bringing a new generation of white-collar protesters to the streets to defend the right to use a technology that remains alien to the majority of India’s people.

Click here to read the full piece.

Netizen Report: Raise Your Voice Edition

Last week’s Netizen Report, published on Global Voices Advocacy, begins with the story of dedicated activists in India who are fighting against unreasonable government censorship and surveillance powers. Here is how the report begins:

Internet activists in India are fuming over the country’s sweeping new Internet restrictions on objectionable content, and are beginning to take extreme action to combat the law. This week we recognize Aseem Trivedi and Alok Dixit from Save Your Voice, who have begun a hunger strike in protest of the ‘Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011’ which were quietly issued by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in April 2011.

One of the flaws of the new rules is that they mandate that website or domain owners must take down material within 36 hours when a third party issues a complaint, without giving a chance for content owners to defend the material. The Bangalore-based advocacy group Centre for Internet & Society also pointed out that the rule leads to a general chilling effect on freedom of expression over the Internet.

Member of Parliament Shri P. Rajeev has moved to have the rules annulled amid widespread protests by India’s netizen community. As a growing number of MP’s become aware of the issue some see some hope that the censorship law will be discarded. For more details, analysis and links see this post on Global Voices.

From there we survey the global state of censorship, surveillance, activism, corporate actions and government regulation. Click here to read the whole thing.

Surveillance and Censorship in India

Chapter 9 opens with quotes from an infamous April 2011 BBC interview with RIM’s co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, in which he ends the interview abruptly after the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones presses him to answer questions about RIM’s “arguments with the Indian government and various other governments in the Middle East” over those governments’ desire to gain access to Blackberry messages and e-mails.  In August 2010, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia  threatened to ban BlackBerry services until RIM agreed to allow a satisfactory level of government access to communications sent through RIM devices within the country. India soon followed suit with its own demands for access. Late last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that RIM has set up a facility in Mumbai “to help the Indian government carry out lawful surveillance of its BlackBerry services.” The report further quotes a RIM statement which says that “we believe the government of India is now applying its security policy in a consistent manner to all handset makers and service providers in India, which means that RIM should not be singled out any more than any other provider.”

There is a larger problem, however. When it comes to censorship in India, the hardworking folks at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore recently concluded that the Indian government is violating not only Indian laws but also the Indian Constitution in the way it handles censorship demands to companies. What are the chances, then, that the Indian government is not violating its citizens’ rights in similar ways when it comes to demands for user information to RIM and other mobile service providers?

CIS’s Pranesh Prakash compared Google’s most recent Transparency Report, which reveals the number of content removal and user data requests made between January and June 2011 by the Indian government, and compared that information with an official response to CIS queries on content removal and blocking by the Ministry of Communications & Information Department of Information Technology. Prakash’s conclusion:

…it would seem that law enforcement agencies are operating outside the bounds set up under the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, as also the Information Technology Act, when they send requests for removal of content to companies like Google. While a company might comply with it because it appears to them to violate their own terms of service (which generally include a wide clause about content being in accordance with all local laws), community guidelines, etc., it would appear that it is not required under the law to do so if the order itself is not legal.

However, anecdotal evidence has it that most companies comply with such ‘requests’ even when they are not under any legal obligation to do so.

This way the intention of Parliament in enacting s.69A of the IT Act—to regulate government censorship of the Internet and bring it within the bounds laid down in the Constitution—is defeated.

As I reported in the book, in April 2011, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology issued new rules under which Internet companies are expected to remove within thirty-six hours any content regulators designated as “grossly harmful,” “harassing,” or “ethnically objectionable.” Indian free speech advocates have vowed to challenge the rules’ constitutionality. Google publicly protested the rules in a statement warning that “if Internet platforms are held liable for third party content, it would lead to self-censorship and reduce the free flow of information.” As Prakash put it then, “The Indian Constitution limits how much the government can regulate citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Any measure afoul of the constitution is invalid.”

More details about surveillance and censorship in India can be found in the India-focused chapter of a new book, Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace, produced by the Open Net Initiative, coming out in December from MIT Press. The India chapter is not currently available online but I discuss India’s issues in a related chapter titled “Corporate Accountability in Networked Asia” (The Citizenlab, one of ONI’s partners, has made that chapter, along with all of Part I of the book, available online here.) I wrote it late last year and it went into production before the new April 2011 rules came out (academic presses take a long time), but I think the larger point remains very relevant. I compare the role played by companies in facilitating government censorship and surveillance in China to the role of companies in two Asian democracies: South Korea and India. I argue that “efforts to hold companies accountable for free speech and privacy in authoritarian countries like China will face an uphill battle unless companies in Asia’s democracies are pushed by domestic civil society actors to defend and protect user rights in a more robust manner than is currently the case.”

The first step is for companies to follow Google’s lead in being more transparent about how they respond to government demands. Then civil society organizations in democracies, like India’s CIS, will be equipped and empowered with the information they need to push their governments to stop using companies as an opaque and unaccountable extension of state power. RIM can and must recognize that by being evasive with the public it is standing firmly on the wrong side of history.

Here is the video of Lazaridis’ interview: