Saturday, March 12, 2011

Beware bloggers; Ramamritham is after you

Readers of this blog are familiar with the mythical Ramamritham - the ubiquitous bureaucrat who frames awful rules and procedures. You can refresh your familiarity with this character here . Frequently this pest merely frames irritating rules that makes lives miserable, but rarely does he do direct harm. But this time he has outdone himself with his mischief and and is now proving to be a real menace. I am referring to the amendments he has proposed to the Indian IT Act, blandly named as the Draft Rule under Section 79 (nobody accused Ramamritham of possessing imagination)

Strip away the legalese and the implications are this
  • the government can shut down any website, including blogs, for the vaguest of reasons
  • Bloggers are responsible to censor reader comments ; if somebody comments inappropriately, its the blogger's problem
  • Intermediaries have to do due diligence on all user material. So presumably the ISP should shut you off if you show your finger to Ramamritham
  • Only an idiot will open a cyber cafe - the risks are simply not worth it.
Government censorship of the Internet is a worldwide problem. Regimes are struggling with how to tame the beast which they seldom understand. The ubiquity and speed of the net is something that is deeply unsettling. Hence this problem of censorship, which is creeping all over the world.

India's justification with censorship of the net started with terrorism. Because terrorists use the internet, it has to be policed, went the logic. It then extended to pornography. Clothed under such "laudable" aims, Ramamritham, in his trademark style has completely gone overboard. Consider the rules he is framing for cybercafes for example.
  • A cyber cafe has to obtain a special license (neta babu raj is back)
  • He must keep a hard and soft copy of log of all users in a prescribed format and must submit monthly returns to the licensing agency of all the websites that each user went to !!!
  • Partitions in the cafe cannot exceed 4.5 feet in height (presumably so that Ramamritham can peer and see if the user is looking at dirty pictures)
  • All screens of computers shall face outwards; so that they can be easily seen by others
  • Police inspectors are authorised to come and inspect whether these rules are being followed (we all know what that means in India)

I haven't made all these up - these are in the Draft Rules. If you don't believe me you can read the bland document here. No wonder you rarely see any reasonable standard internet cafe in India.

The real danger to bloggers is this - if you offend the powers that be, they now have the legal right to hound you. Its no good to say that these powers are meant to be used only to block terrorism or incitement to hatred. The fact that these powers exist means that they will be misused. The history of Ramamritham indicates that he cannot resist using a power he has.

The right way in a democracy to stop this is to lobby your elected representative so that the bill is defeated in the parliament. Fat chance. Imagine a reasoned debate between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Azhagiri on the need to protect individual liberty. So we can only, but moan, in forums such as these.

I though I had returned back from China. Evidently, I haven't. Perhaps the only really "safe" place to go is to that blessed land where the First Amendment is guarded with unbelievable diligence and vigour. Meanwhile, dear readers, do me a favour. Please preface every comment of yours with " The Government of India is next only to God; Hail Ramamritham ; More power to him ". You'll help keep me out of jail. Thank you !

PS - For a more reasoned and less frivolous reporting of the issue go here and here
PPS - Disclaimer - Ramamritham is entirely mythical and any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely accidental !