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India's crackdown on social networks to stop rumor-mongering is fast morphing into an assault of free speech.
NEW DELHI, India — Is China right about the internet? The government of India seems to think so.
This week, New Delhi cracked down on social networking sites and blocked mobile phone users from sending text messages, Beijing-style. The controversial move originated as a bid to stop web-based rumor-mongering and hate speech that caused as many as 30,000 people, panicked by the threat of ethnic violence, to flee India's major cities.
But with one draconian internet law already implemented in April, and a knee-jerk Telecom Security Policy swiftly being drafted, the effort threatens to morph into a full-on assault on this country's cherished freedom of speech.
“While I agree that the government must have the right to intervene when things on social media and on SMS are inciteful, hateful, inflammatory or in areas like pornography, the problem is the exercise of that right is being done today in a very, very ad hoc manner, without any oversight,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an independent member of parliament who has criticized the government's efforts to police the web.
“What is happening today can be interpreted as using the opportunity to fix a lot of things that the government doesn't like.”
On Aug. 11, troublemakers spread doctored images from Myanmar and elsewhere to encourage Indian Muslims to attack ethnically distinct Indians from the country's northeast — sparking a riot in Mumbai in which two people were killed and more than 50 injured. And subsequently, the irresponsible or ill-intentioned disseminated false reports of more violence against northeasterners to cause mass panic in Bangalore, Chennai, Pune and other major Indian cities over recent weeks.
On Wednesday, the Indian government asked social media sites including Facebook and Twitter to remove what it deemed inflammatory content. It issued a statement that it had already blocked nearly 250 websites that allegedly included videos and images that could spur violence between communities, and claimed that much of the material originated on sites based in Pakistan.
But critics claim that the control measures did not stop there.
Though the government maintains that it only asked Google, Twitter and Facebook to block links to the websites hosting inflammatory content, not individual user accounts, Twitter users allege that the authorities have sought to block 16 Twitter handles (or nicknamed accounts). The handles in question allegedly include several that resemble the official account of the prime minister's office, including obvious parody accounts, as well as the handles of at least two journalists and right-wing opponents of the ruling Congress Party, such as Pravin Togadia of the far right Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), according to local reports.
“The Prime Minister's Office had requested Twitter to take appropriate action against six persons impersonating the PMO,” the PMO said in a statement issued Friday. “When they did not reply for a long time the Government Cyber Security Cell was requested to initiate action. Twitter has now conveyed to us that action has been taken stating 'we have removed the reported profiles from circulation due to violation of our Terms of Service regarding impersonation.'”
Others say the government's actions went further.
The Economic Times, for instance, posted a series of letters from the Ministry of Communications & IT Department of Telecommunications to all internet service licensees that called for them to block access not only to Togadia's handle and various Facebook pages, but also Twitter handles like @PM0India and the accounts of right-leaning journalist Kanchan Gupta and numerous other right-wing bloggers and commentators. NDTV and Gupta himself also possess copies of the letters.
“I don't think that the government has been particularly happy with the fact that somebody who [does not] endorse this government's policies, its performance, and the manner in which this government has carried out its constitutional responsibilities [has gained an internet following], and they were just looking for an opportunity to sort of try and shut my voice down,” said Gupta in an interview with NDTV.
“Some ISPs did try to block me,” Gupta said. “In some cities, access was blocked, and that is how I got to know of it. People started sending me messages that my handle had been blocked.”
Togadia, who has repeatedly come under fire for speeches like one last year, in which he reportedly called for a revision to the constitution to