BANGALORE: A proposed government move to regulate content on blogs has ignited a firestorm of protests from the blogging community, which is accusing the government of restricting free speech and acting like guardians of a police state.
At the heart of the issue is the Indian IT Act, which was amended in 2008 to incorporate much-needed changes to clarify the legal position of intermediaries, or those who provide web-hosting services, internet service providers (ISPs), and online auction sites.
However, the term intermediaries , for some reason, was also broadened to include blogs, though they neither provide the same kind of services as ISPs nor do they have large-scale commercial interests.
The law stated the government should clarify rules under which intermediaries should function, and the list of prohibitions applicable to them. The list was published last month and comments were invited from the public, bloggers and other members of the intermediaries group.
Intermediaries include web-hosting providers, which would include companies like Amazon, cyber cafes, payment sites like Paypal, online auction sites, ISPs like BSNL, Airtel, etc. Blogs also fall in this category as networked service providers. The due diligence specifies intermediaries should not display, upload, modify or publish any information that is 'harmful' , 'threatening' , 'abusive' , 'harassing' , 'blasphemous' , 'objectionable' , 'defamatory' , 'vulgar' , 'obscene' , 'pornographic' , 'paedophilic' , 'libellous' , 'invasive of another's privacy' , 'hateful' , 'disparaging' , 'racially , ethnically or otherwise objectionable' , 'relating to money laundering or gambling' . "It's a fundamentally flawed exercise.
One has to keep in mind the nuanced role of bloggers. The government needs to understand the power of the blogging community," said Pavan Duggal, senior advocate in Supreme Court, and cyber law expert. "The blogosphere has to align themselves to the changes in the norm. But since the term 'intermediaries' is vaguely and loosely used, the bloggers are right when they express agitation," he added.
Angry Protests on Twitter
A senior government official defended the govt's response. "We are in the process of finalising it. We welcome positive feedback and constructive criticism. We might have made a mistake in understanding the public aspect. The public could have a different viewpoint," the official said.Bloggers fear the government will use these omnibus terms to charge writers with almost anything. On Twitter, online users have expressed their anger and frustration in equal measure. "We cannot let the government to play the judge, jury and the executioner in this. Our entire audience is Indian. If our site is blocked, we are gone. I am a small player, everything we have built goes away in one shot," said Nikhil Pahwa, founder and editor of Medianama, a digital business news site.
The penalty under this law is of two kinds. Under the civil penalty, the intermediary could be sued for damage by compensation up to Rs 5 crore per contravention. The criminal penalty is imprisonment ranging from three years to life imprisonment for the top management of the intermediary, if it is a company.
There are no exceptions to the due diligence. The law can be a potential threat to online businesses. Players in this space believe the guidelines are very broad and vague and there is no apparent recourse. "Why is the draft obsessed with bloggers, I don't know. The rules are so vast that they cause annoyance. Who defines that the content is objectionable?" asks Shivam Vij, who is a regular contributor to Kafila, a blog that comments on media and politics.
Blogs in India are slowly gaining traction. According to the Vizisense, an online audience measurement site, Indian blogs attracted traffic close to 31 million unique users in January.