India endeavors to police its Internet
NEW DELHI - The Internet empowers; it is an amazing information source, a forum for freedom of expression and an easy means of commerce and communication. But it can boomerang on users as well, as India's mostly young online users are learning, sometimes the hard way.
There are an estimated 50 million active Internet users in India, with the numbers slated to double in a year.
This month, Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid, an information technology (IT) consultant in his early 20s, was arrested by the police for posting "offensive" comments on Google's popular social networking site, Orkut.
Vaid, based in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, had aired his views in a forum "I hate Sonia Gandhi". Sonia Gandhi is a national political leader and president of the Congress party that leads the federal government. The police traced Vaid after collecting his personal information from Google.
Vaid could end up in jail for five years under India's tough IT-Act 2000 as he has been charged under Section 67, which relates to publication of obscene information in electronic content.
Under Indian statutes, especially section 292 of the Indian penal code, connected to freedom of expression, criticisms are permitted so long as they are done in a civil manner. However, action can be initiated against obscenities, communal messages and sacrilege, charges also open to abuse and wide subjective interpretation.
Refuting opinion that passing on user information is an invasion of privacy in the Vaid case, a Google spokesperson said while the company supports free expression of its customers and is committed to protecting user privacy, it complies with local laws and valid legal process.
So far, worldwide, it is observed that Internet companies have chosen to abide by domestic laws, especially in China and India, in order not to invite the ire of the local government and lose business.
Yahoo has been criticized for helping the Chinese government track down pro-democracy protestors. Yahoo's chief executive Jerry Yang has reportedly testified to the US Congress that his company helped in the arrest of a Chinese journalist. "To be doing business in China, or anywhere else in the world, we have to comply with local law," Yang has been quoted as saying.
Indeed, in this context, observers point out that Internet users need to be aware of the limits of the medium as a public forum of expression, or they could end up doing something illegal, unknowingly.
Popular social networking websites frequented by millions of young Indians include Facebook, MySpace, Ibibo, BigAdda and Sulekha.
Experts say that anonymity is not a cloak that any online person should assume, especially given the harsh Indian laws that permit the police to arrest anyone and obliging Internet service providers (ISPs) willing to hand over Internet protocol addresses and other data.
While being interrogated by the police, Vaid reportedly said that he was unaware that he could end up in jail for posting material from the relative obscurity of his office computer.
Vaid's case follows the unfortunate instance of another young Bangalore techie, Lakshmana Kailash, last August. Kailash was arrested by the Pune police for posting insulting images of Chhatrapati Shivaji, a warrior king of Maharashtra, which resulted in the eruption of riots. Kailash ended up spending over 12 weeks in jail.
However, as it turned out, the information provided by ISP Airtel to the police in Pune was incorrect and Kailash was found to be innocent. Understandably very angry, Kailash has decided to sue Airtel and the police.
A couple of years back the Gujarat police picked up another young professional, Omar Farooque, in Delhi who had sent hate mail to Gujarat chief minister Narender Modi. Thankfully, the authorities realized that the said mail was not serious and released Omar.
In 2004, the chief executive officer of eBay India, Avnish Bajaj, was arrested when his website hosted a sex video of two Delhi-based school kids that was being sold online.
Although the arrest of Bajaj raised a furor for targeting the wrong person, security agencies have built a strong case for increased scrutiny of activities on mobile phones and the Internet, especially at cyber cafes.
The Indian government and mobile service providers are at present embroiled in a tussle over third-party access to encrypted messages in BlackBerry cellular services. Security agencies insist that all cyber cafe owners must maintain a record of user identities.
Indian authorities, including the courts, are cracking down on cyber crime, particularly cyber pornography and online break-ins of bank and credit card accounts, referred as "phising".
This year, a court in the southern Indian city of Chennai sentenced a surgeon to life imprisonment in a case relating to pornography. The accused doctor had shot obscene pictures of his women patients and uploaded them on the Internet.
In another instance, police in Mumbai arrested a gang involved in "phising" at least 25 bank accounts and other credit card frauds. International online customers of multinational banks such as HSBC and Citibank have been short-changed in the past by back-end employees based in India.
New Delhi is also in the process of drafting a new IT Act the will further bolster cyber security norms, intellectual property protection and combat piracy. There is reason for alarm.
India has been ranked third, after China and the US, in online frauds by the Anti-Phishing Working Group, a pan-industrial enforcement association that takes on e-fraud and identity theft. A survey by analysts has highlighted that security and privacy are among the biggest fears among companies outsourcing business to India.
The business-stakes are high, given increased online commercial transactions that cover India's multi-billion dollar software and outsourcing sectors.
Software industry-body the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NAASCOM)is implementing a nation-wide program to train police officers at specially constituted cyber labs.
Over 5,000 officers have been trained to take on cyber crimes in major cities Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune. The program is now being extended to Delhi and Kolkata.
NAASCOM has also been pushing tech employees to sign up for the national vskills registry to build an identity and profile database. Over 250,000 employees have so far registered.
Of particular concern is the involvement of educated Indians, especially doctors, engineers and techies in back-end support for terror activities via networked computers.
At least 10 highly educated Indian youth have been arrested in the past couple of years for involvement in terror plots that have included the 2006 Mumbai train bombings and for a London terror plot and attack on Glasgow airport.
Software hub Bangalore has emerged as the favorite city for these deviant professionals to operate, given the large tech population in the city.
There is a fine balance between managing the Internet as a free forum and at the same time checking the increasing misuse of the medium without snuffing it out.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.
Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.