Anonymous-led Protests in India Reflect Debate Over Internet Regulation

Anti-online censorship protests spearheaded by online activist group Anonymous in India this weekend drew sparse crowds, but their efforts underscore a larger debate around Internet regulation in the world’s largest democracy.

This weekend’s protests stemmed from a High Court decision ordering private Internet service providers to block video-sharing websites that made two popular films available. One of those films, “3,” ironically gained popularity after a song from the movie went viral over the Internet. Though the decision was handed down in March, some ISPs complied with the order last month, blocking access to sites like Vimeo and Pirate Bay.

But the battle over file-sharing websites is merely one part of the debate surrounding Internet regulation and governance in India. In April 2011, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology instituted new rules regulating what materials Internet companies can host online. Writing in The Atlantic, Jonah Force Hill, an international and global affairs fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, outlines the effects of these changes.

The April 2011 rules, an update to India's Information Technology Act (IT Act) of 2000 (amended in 2008), popularly known as the "intermediary guidelines," instruct online "intermediaries" -- companies that provide Internet access, host online content, websites, or search services -- to remove, within 36 hours, any material deemed to be "grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous," "ethnically objectionable," or "disparaging" by any Internet user who submits a formal objection letter to that intermediary. Under the guidelines, any resident of India can compel Google, at the risk of criminal and/or civil liability, to remove content from its site that the resident finds politically, religiously, or otherwise "objectionable."

Google and Facebook began removing content from some Indian domain websites, but other companies refused, prompting two Indian residents to file civil and criminal suits against the largest Internet companies in India. Just last week, a trial court issued summons to executives from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other companies to appear in court in response to the criminal charges. It remains to be seen whether these charges will stick, though, since Google and Facebook have moved the Delhi High Court for an appeal that should be heard this summer.

Why should we pay attention to India? Although only 10 percent of its population uses the Internet, that 10 percent represents 121 million people -- and will continue to grow. Moreover, the technology sector is the backbone of the country’s economic rise in the last two decades.

Some like Rebecca MacKinnon see Internet regulation in India as the “new front” in the fight for Internet freedom, which she explains in a recent article in Foreign Policy.

Escalating political and legal battles over Internet regulation in India are the latest front in a global struggle for online freedom -- not only in countries like China and Iran where the Internet is heavily censored and monitored by autocratic regimes, but also in democracies where the political motivations for control are much more complicated.

One of these political battles is India’s proposal for a new international governance structure for the Internet, which Hill suggests is reflective of its “state-centric view of Internet regulation.” India is pushing for the creation of a state-controlled forum called the "Committee for Internet Related Policies” through the United Nations to take over the duties now held by the voluntary group ICANN. However, to some in India, this effort reflects the government’s attempt to replace a governance structure that, while decentralized and voluntary, is largely based in the United States.

While the Anonymous-led protests may not have brought out the expected crowds this weekend, the issues of Internet regulation that spurred them into being remain very much in the spotlight in India.