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Internet Censorship: Regulating India’s Internet

Tue 22nd Mar 2016

This blog post originally appeared on the Economic Times of India TeleTalk blog.

adult content blocked kid safe internet

Content regulation on the Internet is at the forefront of discussion in India due to a build up of events over the past 12 months. Last August the Department of Telecommunications to prevent telecommunication providers from allowing their customers to access 857 pornographic websites. This mandate was immediately appealed and subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court. Then, just a few weeks ago the Supreme Court has provided further clarification about how existing ‘decency’ law could apply in an online context. Though the intention of the initial mandate from the DoT to block porn was focused on child pornography the Supreme Court is seeking a much wider review.

The challenge is that there is no existing regulatory paradigm in India which considers all of the areas in where the internet is available, in-home, at school and in public places. There are content classification models for both print and broadcast media based on time of day access to content and advertising standards.  But the same rules don’t apply in an online world where content is personalised, and available anywhere, at any time, on any device from anywhere in the world. The Internet combines the traits of traditional broadcast media with an interactive channel and much lower barriers to content creation. Imposing national standards and guidelines are difficult due to the vast amount of unclassified user-generated content.

Ultimately India’s policies for the Internet should not be driven by technology or law, but by India’s unique culture and diversity. But there is a problem here; there seems to be a disconnect. Indians are among the most prolific consumers of internet pornography in the world, according to a year-long study from Pornhub, which ended Sept last year. If we take a step back and have a closer look at what the DoT was attempting to do, then restricting access to underage pornography is a good first step.

Proponents of government level blocking need to be weary. Government regulation of the Internet is very complicated; it can be expanded to include things like national security, protection of minors, protection of human dignity, information security and privacy.  Once the filter is in place, it will inevitably raise the question of how widely applicable new rules can be; the key is to remove any ambiguity for scope creep.

For example, in New Zealand, a central child pornography list is anonymised and managed in a local cloud by the Department of Internal Affairs. Implementation of the list was NOT mandated as this avoided the need to undertake a complex legislative review process. Even without a legal mandate, uptake is consistent. All large telecommunication providers have activated this in their networks, creating an effective reach of 85% of fixed line users and 100% of mobile data users.

The DoT will also need to consider real world scenarios; the list will only protect standard online connectivity; this is because blocking typically only covers browser-based queries which utilise HTTP and DNS, not the Darknet, which is where the majority of illicit behaviour occurs on the Internet.

According to GlobalWebIndex research conducted at the beginning of 2015, 33% of Internet users in India already had some form technology that does not use their mobile operator web addressing system (DNS) or hides their traffic from inspection (VPN). Added to this kids are also inherently inquisitive, and they will find a way to get around the measures that are put in place if they want to. When I recently asked my 13-year-old goddaughter about BYOD at her school, she said every kid in her class knew about VPNs. In the very next sentence, she was explaining to her parents what a VPN was – because her parents did not know.  The DoT should carefully to consider how practical its approach will be in meeting the aims of the decency legislation. National level blocking has proven ineffective in creating cultural change.   In an global Internet Society survey 86% of respondents agreed that “freedom of expression should be guaranteed on the Internet” and according to GlobalWebIndex, over 400 million people use virtual private networks to circumvent censorship or for an increased level of privacy.

The first step for any policy to be effective is to find an efficient way to build a secure foundation; how does India ensure that all schools have safe Internet. How can the Dot enable policies which help kids, parents and the school create with clear guidelines? What is the role telco’s play by enabling using kid-safe Internet to help manage the in-home and mobile Internet connection? By applying policies consistently, and having clear consequences for any breaches, India can begin to create communities with cyber-safe awareness.

The thing is, it’s virtually impossible to protect kids from all challenging online situations. It’s our job to make sure they are supported, taught how to manage their way through digital challenges when they arise. Parents and teachers need to be enabled with educational resources to support student, and all stakeholders need to be engaged; educators, the family, and most importantly, the students themselves.

Helping young people understand acceptable and ethical behaviour in a collaborative, environments where they create, control and share their content cannot be accomplished by a single set or rules or managed by solely by technology. These are just the starting point; an ongoing discussion is vital to building the confidence of parents students and the wider community.

Changes in technology are inevitable, creating a safe cyber environment in the home and the school home requires ongoing leadership and engagement with the whole community to keep pace with growing user confidence, new skill requirements and changing attitudes. The approach needs to be strategic; all parties must think long term about how to engage all of the stakeholders involved and fund initiatives which create secure and private Internet for all India net citizens.

You can find more information about the history of government blocking in India here.

 

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