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Surveilling the internet: Our response is LIM(P)

With web filters on the horizon, Omair Ahmad points out the gaps in our current internet governance policy, and argues the need for increased openness and communication.

OMAIR AHMAD  3rd Jan 2015

he Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, was in India about a year ago, and the Observer Research Foundation had arranged for him to speak at their annual RK Mishra Memorial Lecture. Through some unusual luck I was offered a chance to ask him a question after his talk, and I jumped at the chance. Ever since the new Iranian government was elected into power, replacing the much-disliked administration of President Ahmadinejad in 2013, it has pursued a course of public diplomacy that has caught everybody by surprise. Moreover, a great deal of it has been communicated by people like Javad Zarif, and the new Iranian Prime Minister, Hassan Rouhani, who are both on Twitter. Unfortunately, most of Iran is not. Instead, it is caught behind a complicated web filter that limits what Iranian citizens can access, and repressive rules that mandate that every Internet Service Provider (ISP) keep a copy of the details of a person's use for at least three months.

After his talk, I asked the Iranian Foreign Minister why, when his administration was on Twitter, we could not access most of the other Iranians who are online, especially as Iran has one of the highest number of internet users in the Middle East. Zarif responded in two parts. He began by stating that the government had been elected to protect people, and considering all of the odd things on the internet, it was the job of the government to protect the sensibility of the Iranian people.

As he said this, I could almost hear the disbelief in the room. Suhasini Haidar, one of the senior foreign affairs correspondents in the country, immediately tweeted her disbelief. Sensing the mood of the audience — Zarfi is a gifted diplomat — the Iranian Foreign Minister changed tack and said that he was on Twitter the same way that many of the Iranian reporters I had mentioned were — through proxies. He also said that the administration had to convince the rest of the government of the course of a liberal policy.

This was a more believable argument. Iran may be one of the only democracies in West Asia, but its democracy is severely compromised because its final decisions rest with an unelected Guardianship Council of leading religious clerics, led by the Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. This is one of the inventions of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (no relation) through his ideas of a Velayat-al-Faqih, or the Administration by (Religious) Jurists, under which Iran has been ruled since the Revolution of 1979. Nevertheless, it was striking for Zarif to say, in effect, that the Foreign Minister of Iran was basically bypassing the web filters of his own country!

All of this becomes increasingly relevant because India, too, may find itself with web filters very soon. In April 2013, the Indore-based advocate Kamlesh Vashwani filed a Public Interest Litigation asking for the government to find a way to filter pornographic sites available on the internet. During the hearing, in August this year, the Additional Solicitor General, L. Nageswara Rao, said that the government was having difficulty in dealing with the issue. As an example he cited a recent case in which, "A girl in Bangalore [was] being harassed on the net. We got Google to delete the website. But the next day it was uploaded on 10 other sites. The father committed suicide two days ago." The three-judge bench, led by the Chief Justice of India, R.M. Lodha, expressed its concern on the issue, and the ASG said that the government was working on a policy.

Accordingly, on 5 September, the Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, called a meeting under the aegis of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITy) and including the chief of the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) Gulshan Rai and representatives from NASSCOM, FICCI, and IAMAI. Other than the creepy Orwellian nature of the acronym — deity means "divine being" — this has led us into deeply contentious terrain. Apparently, during the meeting, the idea of a great Indian Web Filter, that would not only filter information from Indian citizens but would also not allow us to know what was being filtered, was proposed. The criteria were expanded to not only include pornography — which is not legally defined in India — but also content that could be sensitive and lead to communal problems, as well as content relating to national security — another term that has not been legally defined in India. In other words the Indian government has suggested, without consultation with civil society, academics or anyone except business lobbies, that it should regulate content based on definitions that are so broad and vaguely defined that they could conceivably cover even mildly offensive subjects, and also not tell anybody about it. And if you do not know what is being blocked, how can you challenge this in any court of law?

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Unfortunately, we do not have an Edward Snowden, so we have no idea what private information has been collected and how it has been used.

India, though, has not plunged suddenly into surveillance. We had arrived there years ago. Reporters Without Borders has a map on its website identifying "Enemies of the Internet" and India is very prominently coloured red. The nodal agency identified is the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT), which was set up in 1984 to help develop information technology infrastructure. In 2008 C-DoT set up surveillance using the Central Monitoring System, apparently at the fairly reasonable cost of $72 million, or Rs 450 crores, to intercept all telecommunications in the country — unfortunately, we do not have an Edward Snowden, so we have no idea what private information has been collected and how it has been used. Not only that, in September 2013 the government announced that it had been monitoring not just the internet but all other telecommunications as well under the Lawful Intercept and Monitoring Programme (LIM). The acronym, to save face, has dropped the "P".

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t is increasingly clear that the Indian government — both the last one and the current one — is very comfortable monitoring and restricting its citizens. This is despite very clear rules and regulations forbidding this. For example, in 2006, orders were given titled "Instructions for ensuring privacy of communications", which instructed that designated nodal officers should be set up to communicate and receive "intimations for interceptions". These officers are required to seek meetings with the government to seek confirmation on the authenticity of such orders every fortnight, and these officers were supposed to be on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In practice this has been too much, and reports indicate that such strict procedure is not being followed. Considering the LIM(P) system bypasses it completely, there is nothing in place protecting the privacy of telecommunications of Indian citizens.

Such restrictions are not merely for countries like China, Iran or Cuba — North Korea is an extreme example of a country that runs its own internet — but ostensibly liberal developed countries like the U.K. also indulge in such practices. While Snowden revealed how deeply the U.S. National Security Agency and the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters spy on us, most people overlook the fact that the U.K., too, operates an internet filter. The Chaos Computer Club (CCC), arguably Europe's most well-known hacker's collective, was blocked by the U.K. last week. The release on the CCC's website states, "Since July 2013, a government-backed so-called opt out list censors the open internet. These internet filters, authorised by Prime Minister David Cameron, are implemented by U.K.'s major internet service providers (ISPs). Dubbed as the 'Great Firewall of Britain', the lists block adult content as well as material related to alcohol, drugs, smoking, and even opinions deemed 'extremist'." Very much like India, the U.K.'s reaction to pornography has extended to ideas of extremism and state control of access to information and even opinion.

Maybe the funniest line in the CCC release is this, "Accessing the server directly via http://213.73.89.123/ currently appears to work quite well, thereby rendering the censorship efforts useless." The U.K.'s censorship affects are comical in their incompetence if this is all that is required to bypass the filtering, but in most cases bypassing government filters requires some technical expertise. Of course, if I was to share such information with you in an article, I would be violating numerous forms of legislation which, because "national security" is an undefined category, would open up both me, and any publication that shared such information, to charges of violating "national security". Much of this information, though, is freely available on the internet. Go search, if you wish to know.

A map on Reporters Without Borders’ website identifying ‘Enemies of the Internet’.

That said, it is not as if the current state of internet governance is an ideal space. Last November, the Indian government moved a proposal at the Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunications Union, which governs the rules of telecommunications between countries. The proposal suggested that a "routing plan" was created which made all communications traceable and all IP addresses were easily identifiable. But the main thrust of the proposal was that the current system of allocating IP addresses should be made "fair, just and equitable". Currently, internet governance is seen as a "technical" issue, with technical companies and developed countries setting the agenda. There is merit in the argument that a strategic, inclusionary and equitable way of moving forward in this form of governance is necessary. At the same time, as Arun Mohan Sukumar, at the Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi argues, if the Indian government does not involve its own citizens and academics in a conversation on what it wants to do, it weakens its own arguments. As it is, we currently seem to enjoy an image that is only somewhat better than Iran's, which displayed a big picture of a computer screen showing Facebook as a principal enemy in its 2012 Army Day parades.

 
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