Free speech advocates and internet users in India are concerned about new regulations that restrict online content and thus jeopardize the free speech that is guaranteed by the Constitution.
India is projected to have the third-largest online population by 2013
With internet penetration growing rapidly in India, especially in the rural hinterland, a healthy debate about the regulation of online content has broken out in the country.
When the new regulations restricting online content were brought in by the Department of Information Technology, there was some concern among internet users and advocates of free speech that they would curtail debate in cyberspace.
The new rules place the onus on social networking sites, such as Facebook, to "act within 36 hours" of receiving information about offensive content. But how does one define "offensive?"
The government has tried to allay activists' fears by saying that the new regulations are in line with "global practices" and are not at all harmful.
Currently only 10 percent of Indians have access to the Internet
The Minister for Communications and IT, Sachin Pilot, has said the restrictions concern only content that might be considered "objectionable." This includes material that "hurts the sentiments of certain individuals or communities, challenges the sovereignty of the nation or causes a threat to internal security."
However, activists warn that while most of the restrictions in the rules are based on India's criminal law and deal with blasphemous, obscene and defamatory material, some limitations are so loosely worded that they could easily be misused against netizens who are used to speaking their mind freely, whether about politics or other sometimes sensitive matters.
They feel that the rules are unreasonable as they undermine the free speech that is supposed to be guaranteed by the Constitution.
"There is a violation of privacy and there are definite strictures or restraints," says Pushkar Raj, the general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties.
"What I feel is that there is a restraint on freedom of expression because what you say and what you do on the internet is liable to be monitored in a very stringent way by the government."
Pilot insists, however, that his is not the case. He points out that Indian cyberspace is one of the "freest and most transparent" in the world. "Only 11 or 12 websites among millions have actually been shut down or taken off the Web in the past 10 to 12 years. Our blogspace is very active; there is no monitoring, no eavesdropping. We believe in freedom of speech."
However, the government has been known to ban books and movies in the past, especially when they touched upon sensitive subjects such as sex, politics and religion.
Growing online population
Subho Ray, the president of the Internet and Mobile Association of India, is not too worried about the restrictions. Although they "curb activity and free speech on the Internet a bit, they are also well-balanced so that nobody can harm you online," he says.
"That is the spirit of the law," he says. However, he does point out that there is a problem with the new rules as "what is good for one user might not be good for another on specific user-generated websites."
Some films have been banned for the explicit content
Although only 10 percent of India's total population currently has access to the Internet, the number of users is growing by the day, with rising mobile phone sales and the introduction of 3G services.
India is projected to have the third-largest online population in the world by 2013.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Anne Thomas