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Catch-all approach to Net freedom draws activist ire
ANNIE JOHNNY  14th Mar 2011

he Internet has revolutionised the way we socialise, date and even protest. Online activism is a faster, more effective way to get more people to react to a cause. But at the same time it is this speed that makes Internet-generated protests a far graver danger than offline protests. Egypt faced an Internet shutdown when the protest started gaining steam and China has been throttled with heavy cyber censorship for years. Unfortunately, silencing the voices of dissent online is as easy as raising them.

A workshop recently conducted at the Constitution Club in New Delhi brought together human rights activists, bloggers and techies and explored the challenges faced by online activists. "When the Internet was in its nascent stage, there was the Utopian belief that the government would not have the same role to play as it does offline. However, the Internet is being increasingly regulated by the government," says Dr. Anja Kovacs, fellow, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore.

The Binayak Sen and Pink Chaddi campaigns provide a picture of how fast and efficient online activism is. "Initially, the campaign was restricted to a centralised network of people and was a way for me and my friends to vent out our thoughts. But it grew beyond our expectations. Between March 2008 and May 2009, we had about 1.5 million visitors. Our experience with the Internet as an effective tool in mobilising people has been very positive," says Satya Sivaraman, one of the initiators of the Free Binayak Sen Campaign website.

Blocking websites that promote child pornography and hate speech is acceptable. Activists, however, are concerned about the mysterious disappearances of blogs and the vague explanations given to justify them. "There is a provision for spam in the IP act. While the rule is meant for only for spam, it is extended over a much wider area. According to it, anything that is deemed objectionable can be blocked. Instead of targeting offensive material, the act should target harmful content. Child pornography and hate speeches cause harm, whereas what is 'offensive' is subjective," says Pranesh Prakash, programme manager, Centre for Internet and Society.

Bloggers in countries like Thailand and Singapore face serious consequences for posting anti-state views online. However, very few people all over the world are standing up against the curtailing of the right to freedom of expression online. "There are ways to access blocked sites but most people do not bother to do that. If a site is blocked, they will simply accept it. The government in India is becoming increasingly restrictive. While their reason for concern is valid as the restrictions are in place to protect national security, the way they are dealing with this is inappropriate. Drafting vague rules related to 'objectionable content' without specifying whom the content is objectionable to, is not going to help. There needs to be clearly defined categories for banning sites," says Kovacs.

Rising against the growing restrictions and the wide gaps in Internet accessibility, The Internet Rights and Principles coalition, which works on Internet rights, is coming up with a Charter for Human Rights and Principles for the Internet.

The charter, which is still being drafted and has been put online for suggestions, emphasises that human rights apply the same way online as they do offline, and lays down rules and Internet policies necessary to protect human rights.

Another interesting observation is that most online protests don't always spark parallel offline protests. The Meter Jam protest against the high auto fares in Mumbai is one such example. "While it helped the middle class vent their frustration, on the day of the actual offline protest, hardly anyone boycotted autos. Business went on as usual," says Kovacs.

 
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