Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Censor The Net At Your Own Risk, Dear UPA


A former Chinese colleague and I once had a conversation about censorship. I had just started a brief stint with a government-owned newspaper in Beijing and wanted to know how the system worked. I'd known Guo - her last name - for about a year before that. She was a journalism student at Renmin University.

She explained that the first level was watchwords. These are topics you cannot touch at all, such as corruption among high-up CPC officials, "if any" in her words. Then there were sensitive subjects that could be reported but only in a certain way (The Dalai Lama - always 'Splittist'; Tiananmen Square - students became violent, etc). But I was interested in the idea of censorship itself.

I asked her why the government felt it had to censor such topics in the first place. "Because the people are stupid", she said. I was a taken aback. "What do you mean, 'stupid'?" I asked. "They don't know what's good for them. If they interpret news in the wrong way, there could be chaos or violence," she replied.

I have to remind you that Guo was a journalism student at one of China's top universities. And she believed it was absolutely essential for the government to censor the news.

I understand (but don't condone) this attitude. In China, the CPC builds part of its credibility by demonising third-party influences (the Dalai Lama, pro-Democracy protestors, the Vatican). If citizens found out more than they needed to, the credibility of the party would collapse. Without its credibility, the CPC regime would collapse.

This brings me to censorship in a democracy. This is antithetical. In democracies voter choices are based on knowledge and understanding of the candidate and the party's record. For long, this understanding came from the press. When India's press was censored during The Emergency the country rightly threw out the party responsible in the next election.

Today, there are justifiable complaints about press bias. Perhaps coincidentally (or perhaps not!), such complaints have increased as the internet spread. This bias has led to the popularity of online satire and political blogs. Yes, some push the envelope mixing conspiracy theory with fact. But show me a single newspaper, TV channel or magazine that is not guilty of this.

It doesn't bother the government one bit when such conspiracies hurt the opposition. However, a single website targeting Sonia Gandhi is all it took for Kapil Sibal to embark on his quest to silence the web.

Censoring the net is as bad as censoring our free press. The press retaliated with great vigour once the yoke of The Emergency was lifted. The result was a deep embarrassment for the Congress in the next election. The net belongs to the people. Censor it at your own risk, dear UPA.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hack, Just Don't Pretend It's Something Else

I read this piece in Mint and laughed. No, not at the reporting but at the naivete/brazenness of the government that it exposes.

Here's the short version. The government wants to pass a Privacy law that will require all internet-based services (Google, Facebook, Skype, etc) to locate their servers in India. Why? It gives two reasons. One, that data of Indian citizens will remain within the country "to guarantee privacy". Two, that investigative agencies will get "ready access to encrypted data on their servers".

The story supplies quotes from (anonymous) government officials to explain their logic.

On the data privacy angle: "At present, we do not have a law that governs leakage of individual data aboard (sic). So the [proposed] privacy Act will not serve any purpose if data is leaked or made public abroad". 

On the Intel access to servers front, they supply an example. "NIA had written to Yahoo seeking details of accounts used to send emails claiming responsibility after the Delhi serial blasts on 13 September 2008.
According to government officials, Yahoo’s server is located in the US and the time frame for getting such information from outside India’s jurisdiction is 45 days."

DATA SECURITY OR EASE OF ACCESS?

Let's start with the obvious contradiction. Dear GoI, don't pretend this is about privacy when it's really about hacking. What data privacy are you talking about if our own intelligence agencies can hack into my mailbox or Skype calls at will? Yes, I mind if the NSA is reading my emails. I also mind if R&AW or the IB are reading my emails. Especially since I'm not involved in any illegal or unlawful activities.

SERVER RELOCATION
Here's another absurdity. The government will put the onus of relocating servers within India on the service companies or they will face legal action. This is bizarre in two respects.

First, what if the service user is a NRI working with a non-Indian MNC who spends half the year in the UK? Where should his data be hosted? India? The UK? Switzerland?

Second, it is obvious the government lacks imagination. Does it believe terrorists only use popular social media & email sites? For example, I can record terror instructions in an MP3 format and upload them to Grooveshark.com, an internet radio service. Or I can prepare bomb-making manuals and upload them to YouSendIt.com, a file storage site. Will the government require EVERY SINGLE internet service to relocate its servers to India? Will it chase down and prosecute EVERY SINGLE internet service that doesn't do so?

NATIONAL SECURITY
Here's my takeaway. I understand the need to to hack at will. If it prevents terror attacks, by all means do it. Now, hacking servers located abroad can create a major diplomatic situation. Just like this alleged incident. So don't get caught.
Just don't pass laws that dress up your attempts to hack as an effort to increase data privacy. And certainly don't waste taxpayer money prosecuting internet companies with limited Indian subscribers in an attempt to force them to relocate their servers.




Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Who Killed My Cow?

So Madhya Pradesh's ban on cow slaughter is about to be written law. It's quite a thorough set of protections. In fact, if you're a cow or a "cow progeny" Madhya Pradesh is probably the safest place to be right now.

I haven't killed cows and don't intend to do so. So I don't have a problem with this law. Thankfully, Madhya Pradesh hasn't banned the consumption of beef. If you can afford the cost of transporting the meat from another state, no problem. That's at least slightly better than the total ban on alcohol in Gujarat, no?

Also, as my former colleague Sumit Nagpal points out, preventing cow slaughter is technically, one of the Directive Principles of our Constitution. A nod to Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps.

So what do I have a problem with? Well, it's this. The MP law requires anyone accused of cow slaughter to prove they aren't guilty (see Section 12). In fact, six of 21 states that ban cow slaughter - according to this Ministry of Agriculture list - put the burden of proof on the accused (The Agriculture Ministry's list is incomplete as it contains just 24 states).

Section 12 of Madhya Pradesh's Act violates two long-held principles of justice. The first is that the accused is always innocent until proven guilty. The second, to prevent false accusations, is that the burden of proof must lie on the prosecution.


Without these safeguards, the MP law opens the door to false accusations. POTA & TADA - two laws quoted by Sumit to me in support of the MP law - were rightly criticised because of this draconian tendency. Those laws resulted in innumerable false accusations. In TADA's case, there was a 95% acquittal rate. While the acquittals came as good news, the suspects will never get back their time in jail as under-trials. The false cases also wasted thousands of precious man-hours of court time. Thankfully, neither law is in force any longer.

 With the MP law, there's an added danger. Cow slaugther is a delicate subject with deep sensitivities. The subject has resulted in riots previously. Can any government guarantee this won't happen again?

In the interest of preserving principles of justice, protecting the innocent, valuing the precious time of our courts and keeping public order, the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi, must strike off this unfair, illegal and dangerous clause.