"65 years since your independence," a new battle for freedom is under way in India -- according to a YouTube video uploaded by an Indian member of Anonymous, the global "hacktivist" movement. With popular websites like Vimeo.com blocked across India by court order, the video calls for action: "Fight for your rights. Fight for India." Over the past several weeks, the group has launched distributed denial-of-service attacks against websites belonging to Internet service providers, government departments, India's Supreme Court, and two political parties.
Street protests are being planned for this coming Saturday, June 9, in as many as 18 cities to protest laws and other government actions that a growing number of Indian Internet users believe have violated their right to free expression and privacy online. A lively national Internet freedom movement has grown rapidly across India since the beginning of this year. The most colorful highlight so far was a seven-day Gandhian hunger strike, otherwise known as a "freedom fast," held in early May on a New Delhi sidewalk by political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and activist-journalist Alok Dixit. Trivedi's website was shut down this year in response to a police complaint by a Mumbai-based advocate who alleged that some of Trivedi's works "ridicule the Indian Parliament, the national emblem, and the national flag."
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. Democratically elected governments all over the world are failing to find the right balance between demands from constituents to fight crime, control hate speech, keep children safe, and protect intellectual property, and their duty to ensure and respect all citizens' rights to free expression and privacy. Popular online movements -- many of them globally interconnected -- are arising in response to these failures.
Only about 10 percent of India's population uses the web, making it unlikely that Internet freedom will be a decisive ballot-box issue anytime soon. Yet activists are determined to punish New Delhi's "humorless babus," as one columnist recently called India's censorious politicians and bureaucrats, in the country's media. Grassroots organizers are bringing a new generation of white-collar protesters to the streets to defend the right to use a technology that remains alien to the majority of India's people.
The trouble started with the 2008 passage of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, whose Section 69 empowers the government to direct any Internet service to block, intercept, monitor, or decrypt any information through any computer resource. Company officials who fail to comply with government requests can face fines and up to seven years in jail. Then, in April 2011, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology issued new rules under which Internet companies are expected to remove within 36 hours any content that regulators designate as "grossly harmful," "harassing," or "ethnically objectionable" -- designations that are open to a wide variety of interpretations and that free speech advocates argue have opened the door to abuse. It is thanks to these rules that the website of the hunger-striking cartoonist, Trivedi, was taken offline. Also thanks to the 2011 rules, Facebook and Google are facing trial for having failed to remove objectionable content. If found guilty, the companies could face fines, and executives could be sentenced to jail time.