Tricky issue of policing the Internet

Instead of bans, regulations may be a better way of dealing with the downside of digital technology 

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Thursday 16 May 2019
Internet censorship
Image: Getty Images Image: Getty Images

Almost everybody in India is in the business of “cleaning up” the Internet, which essentially means censoring it. So, we have ISPs or internet service providers, courts, bureaucrats and government agencies periodically blocking hundreds of websites they do not like, or for purportedly infringing copyright. The Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) found that more than 23,000 websites/URLs were blocked in India in 2017. That figure was provided by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Group (MEITY), in response to a Right to Information query filed by SFLC.

Takedowns have rarely worked because such is the nature of the Internet. It is nearly impossible to curb or control data because of the way information flows in the digital world. And industry’s fight to protect their copyright invariably turns into an assault on online freedom for others. Orders to stamp out piracy by securing bans and takedowns of websites have had limited success because of the ability of offending websites to put up “mirror websites” with the same content as the original sites.

On April 10, the Delhi High Court issued a judgement that is considered significant for controlling online piracy by appearing to address a major loophole. It decreed that rights-holders need not go through the ªcumbersomeº process of a judicial order to secure blocking orders to ISPs. Instead, plaintiffs will be allowed to seek the extension of injunction orders from the Registrar of the Delhi High Court. This means that orders granted against an offending website can be sought from this official for similar action against mirror/redirect/alphanumeric websites that carry the same content.

While banning nearly 30 websites, which were found infringing on the copyright of UTV Software Communication and others from hosting, streaming, reproducing or distributing such content, Justice Manmohan also directed MEITY to explore the possibility of framing a policy, under which a ªwarning is issued to the viewers of the infringing content…and cautioning the viewers to cease viewing/downloading the infringing material”. It was a clear admission that website blocking, which he described as a cumbersome exercise, doesn’t really work. The websites found guilty of piracy of the movies produced by the plaintiff firms are in any case hosted outside India.

The bigger hullabaloo is over the Madras High Court order banning the download of the hugely popular video-sharing app TikTok because of concerns over pornographic content. The Chinese-owned app with a global user base of 500 million is widely used by young people to create and share short videos. While the court’s moral worries may be justified, the order raises concerns about the selective censorship of the Internet.

Why a ban on just TikTok when social media is awash with everything toxic and inappropriate? In any case, getting Google and Apple to block TikTok downloads from their stores in India hardly solves the problem. There are third-party app stores from where TikTok can be downloaded and tech firms have highlighted this loophole by listing a variety of such stores. Besides, there is nothing to prevent current users from sharing TikTok with others who want to join.

Regulation, perhaps, may be a better way of dealing with the downside of digital technology rather than bans. Not even the parents of young children favour a ban.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated May 1-15, 2019)

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