Proactive manipulation of web content

IN Digital Media | 26/09/2012
Large swathes of online content are disappearing, and the losses are far more difficult to reverse than the mere blocking of a website,
says KETAN TANNA, analyst of the India section of the Freedom House report on Freedom on the Net 2012, released last week.

300? 400? 500+? Take your pick.  No one really has a firm idea of how many URLS, websites, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts have been blocked by the Indian authorities in the aftermath of the Assam riots and the exodus of North East Indians from various parts of India.   For that matter, nobody has an idea of how many of the blocked sites, URLs, accounts are back in action.

And yet, even before the Assam violence, the Indian government has steadily beefed up its resolve in controlling our net freedom. What began as a downward spiral following the 2008 Mumbai terror attack and the passing of Information Technology Act 2000 and the amendments has taken ominous portent as the Indian government has armed itself with unreasonable powers.

A reflection of the downward spiral in the freedom on the net that Indians enjoy is evident in the upward revision of scores for India in the Freedom On the Net(FOTN) 2012 report released by Washington based Freedom House (www.freedomhouse.org) on September 25, 2012 (click here to access the India report).

The overall score for India was 36 in 2011 and its 39 in 2012. Each addition to the score means deterioration in the overall freedom. The index aims to capture the entire “enabling environment” for internet freedom within each country through a set of 21 methodology questions, divided into three subcategories, which are intended to highlight the vast array of relevant issues. Each individual question is scored on a varying range of points.

The report reveals that India was one of the only 4 of the 20 countries that “recently experienced declines” and are electoral democracies. The other three are Mexico, Turkey and South Korea. The report has mentioned that in India, “amid several court cases regarding intermediaries’ responsibility for hosting illegal content and new guidelines requiring intermediaries to remove objectionable content within 36 hours of notice, much evidence has surfaced that intermediaries are taking down content without fully evaluating or challenging the legality of the request”.

The report draws attention to the silent censorship prevalent on the internet. “As a result of such dynamics, large swaths of online content are disappearing, and the losses are far more difficult to reverse than the mere blocking of a website” the report adds.

Bangalore based The Centre for Internet and Society on its website has of August 22, 2012 calculated that “309 specific items (URLs, Twitter accounts, img tags, blog posts, blogs, and a handful of websites) have been blocked”.  Officially, the government has admitted to blocking “245 web Pages for Inflammatory Content hosting of Provocative and Harmful Content”. (http://www.pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=86355)

“Keeping in view the sensitivity and need for restoring peace, harmony and public order, the Government on recommendation of Ministry of Home Affairs issued orders under section 69A of the Information Technology Act 2000 directing intermediaries including international social networking sites to block 76 web pages on 18.08.2012, 80 web pages on 19.8.2012 and 89 web pages on 20.8.2012. These intermediaries and international social networking sites were also requested to provide registration details and access logs of the person who uploaded such content”, the government revealed in the press note.

And that is not the last of what we have heard. Hundreds of other URLs, sites, Facebook accounts have been blocked in the days after the release.  The government has not as yet, given details of the sum total. Nikhil Pahwa, Editor of medianama.com had filed a RTI asking the government for finer details more than a month ago. The government is still sitting on it. “People need to know what has been blocked, why it has been blocked, who has taken the decision to block it, and what is the process of getting the block removed” says Pahwa.

That the Indian government is serious about arming itself and controlling the internet access of Indians is evident from the Economic Times report of August 21, 2012 which said that the government has asked “ISPs and mobile phone firms to build 'embedded technologies' that will enable it to ban social media and other websites in specific geographies”. The Economic Times report says the embedded technology move is a result of the logic given by the telecommunication companies that said they lacked the technology to bar websites on a state-by-state basis.  

Salient features of the Freedom on the Net report 2012

 

Despite the noted improvements, restrictions on internet freedom continue to expand across a wide range of countries. Over the past decade, governments have developed a number of effective tools to control the internet. These include limiting connectivity and infrastructure, blocking and filtering content that is critical of the regime, and arresting users who post  information that is deemed undesirable. In 2011 and 2012, certain methods that were previously employed only in the most oppressive environments became more widely utilized. 

To counter the growing influence of independent voices online, an increasing number of states are turning to proactive manipulation of web content, rendering it more challenging for regular users to distinguish between credible information and  government propaganda. Regimes are covertly hiring armies of pro-government bloggers to tout the official point of view,  discredit opposition activists, or disseminate false information about unfolding events. This practice was in the past largely  limited to China and Russia, but over the last year, it has been adopted in more than a quarter of the countries examined. The Bahraini authorities, for example, have employed hundreds of “trolls” whose responsibility is to scout popular domestic and international websites, and while posing as ordinary users, attack the credibility of those who post information that reflects poorly on the government.

Both
physical and technical attacks against online journalists, bloggers, and certain internet users have also been on the rise in 2011 and 2012, demonstrating that the tactics previously used against opposition  journalists  are  now  being  applied  to  those writing  in  the  online  sphere  as  well. Moreover,  the  attacks  have  become  more  violent.  In  Azerbaijan,  for  example,  a  prominent journalist and contributor to several online news sites died of stab wounds after being attacked by unknown assailants. In Mexico, for the first time, individuals who had circulated information online about organized crime and corruption were brutally murdered, with the killers often leaving notes that cited the victim’s online activities.  

As another  method  of  controlling  speech  and  activism  online,  governments  have  imposed temporary shutdowns of the  internet or mobile phone networks during mass protests, political events, or other sensitive times. While the most widely  reported example occurred in Egypt in January  2011,  this  report’s  findings  reveal  that  both  nationwide  and  localized  shutdowns  are becoming more common.  

 

Freedom on the Net 2012 identifies a shifting set of tactics used by various governments to control the free flow of information  online. While blocking and filtering remain the preferred methods of restriction in many of the states examined, a growing set of countries have chosen other tools to limit political and social speech that they view as undesirable. These alternative tactics include (1) introduction of vague laws that prohibit certain types of content, (2) proactive manipulation, (3) physical attacks against bloggers and other internet users, and (4) politically motivated surveillance. 

(Ketan Tanna is Feature and web editor of Free Press Journal. He is based in Mumbai).

 

Note: Since the worldwide deadline for the Freedom On the Net( FOTN) 2012 report was May 1, 2012, the meltdown of Indian freedom on the net post Assam violence as also the arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in August 2012 did not feature in it. 

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