Today, the Global Network Initiative launched a campaign to raise awareness on India’s Internet laws. The GNI, of which CPJ is a founding member, is a coalition of technology companies–including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo–and human rights groups and Internet freedom advocates. The coalition, in collaboration with the Internet and Mobile Association of India, has created an interactive slideshow that explains the impact of current laws and regulations on the country’s Internet users.
Already, India represents the third largest population of Internet users in the world, behind only China and the United States. (Recent reports suggest India may even have bypassed the U.S. already) Fifteen percent of Indians were using the Internet in 2013, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)– more than 185 million people, a number that continues to rise rapidly in large part due to prevalence of mobile devices.
As Internet usage accelerates, debate is underway on how best to police the Web in a country that has grappled with a spate of terrorist attacks and large-scale communal violence. In recent years, journalists and critical voices in the country have increasingly come under fire due to authorities’ misuse of existing Internet laws–mainly the Informational Technology Act.
Since the passage of the law in 2000, and its amending in 2008, numerous Indians have been threatened with legal harassment, detained, and arrested, particularly under section 66A of the law, under which individuals can face up to three years in prison for electronic communication that is deemed “grossly offensive” or has “menacing character,” or that causes “annoyance or inconvenience.”
In September 2012, police in Maharashtra state arrested political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for publishing cartoons mocking national symbols and criticizing corruption on his website, Cartoons Against Corruption. The cartoonist faced charges of sedition, violating Internet security laws, and insulting national honor. While the sedition charge against Trivedi was dropped after a public outcry, the charges under the Internet Technology Act and the National Honour Act, 1971 were pursued. It is unclear whether the charges are still pending. Trivedi and his lawyer did not immediately respond to CPJ’s emailed request for an update.
We have already seen worrisome curbs on free speech under India’s new leadership and a rise in censorship, partly due to influence from the Hindu right. With press freedom and free expression under pressure, there is a clear need to assess how existing legislation impacts India’s Internet users and online journalists.