The Google Transparency Report for July to December 2010 makes this unflattering revelation: the number of requests from Indian authorities for disclosure of data about Internet users and for removal of content from websites has risen sharply. As a measure of intolerance and attempts at censorship, the Transparency Report now provides more data for analysis than in the past. The role played by governments in the deletion of content is among the additional features. On the face of it, India’s requests may appear to be unexceptional. After all, several democracies, not to speak of countries with less tolerant regimes, have made similar demands on Google. What does set India apart from genuinely liberal countries is the nature of the content sought to be scrubbed out and the agencies involved. Most of the removal requests pertain to allegedly defamatory postings on websites such as YouTube and Blogger, and specific web search results. That they have been made by executive agencies and the police without recourse to due process is bad enough. What makes them ridiculous is that the authorities targeted online content critical of Chief Ministers and senior officials of different States. Google has done well to mostly reject these blatant attempts at censorship, complying with only 22 per cent of the cases. It is noteworthy that this is a low acceptance rate compared with other robust democracies.
The resort to non-judicial processes to curb Internet freedom in the majority of cases pertaining to India is part of a disturbing trend. It is of a piece with the new rules framed under the Information Technology Act 2000, diluting fundamental freedoms and ushering in a culture of suffocating surveillance. On content removal, it needs to be pointed out that in the United States, Google acted on court orders to remove material deemed defamatory. In Britain, fraudulent advertising linked to scams was removed. Naturally, the compliance rate for both countries is high, unlike the Indian experience. These pointers must convince India that its heavy-handed approach to scrub inconvenient speech off the Internet is earning it worldwide notoriety. It is also time the central government changed its Orwellian course on the question of privacy. Too much emphasis is placed on creating comprehensive, inter-linked databases citing security, without giving sufficient thought to data protection. Moreover, the new rules under the IT Act require intermediaries such as cyber-cafes and Internet Service Providers to retain personal data for long periods, increasing the likelihood of misuse. Correcting these aberrations, which do not sit well with tenets of democracy, is the right thing to do.