Many individuals in India, particularly free speech advocates and Internet users, are concerned about the new regulations the Indian government has imposed this year.

India’s government has not only voted to block foreign funding, but it has escalated pressure on media and civil society groups that are critical of government policies.  Because of this, the government has chosen to restrict online content, jeopardizing the free speech that is guaranteed by the Constitution.  The South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, said that “India’s crackdown on civil society groups threatens the country’s rich tradition of people’s movements.”  He also said that, “instead of punishing the messenger by hindering their work, the government should engage with activists to improve access to rights and justice.”

In rural India, Internet access is growing especially rapidly.  Because of this, the country is entering a widespread debate about how strictly and closely the online content in the country should be regulated.  Many Internet users and advocates of free speech were concerned when the new regulations restricting online content were put forth by the Department of Information Technology.  The users and advocates were concerned that this action would curtail debate in cyberspace.  The new rules place the onus on social networking sites, such as Facebook, to act within 36 hours of receiving information about “offensive content”.  Legally speaking, the term “offensive” is ambiguous and has not been clearly defined, making many worried about how the government will fairly regulate users.  While free speech activists remain worried and skeptical, the Indian government is trying to ease their nervousness by saying that these new regulations are not only in line with global practices, but that this regulation will not be harmful to citizens at all. Currently only 10 percent of India’s population has access to the Internet, but the number of users continues to climb.

Thus far, the offensive and objectionable material includes material that “hurts the sentiments of certain individuals or communities, challenges the sovereignty of the nation or causes a threat to internal security.”  Sachin Pilot, the Minister for Communications and IT, finds that these kinds of material make up the kind of content they consider to be “objectionable.”

Sachin Pilot and other members from the Department feel that cyberspace in India is one of the freest and most transparent in the world. Numerically speaking, “only 11 or 12 websites among millions have actually been shut down or taken off the Web in the past 10 to 12 years.” He contends that India’s blog space is active, and that there is not individual monitoring or eavesdropping because India continues to believe in freedom of speech. However, activists continue to feel that the rules are not fair and that they undermine freedom of speech, opposing the Constitution.

Some Indians, including Subho Ray, the president of India’s Internet and Mobile Association (IAMAI), do feel that this action is actually good for the country and the safety of people. Subho Ray has said that he is not too worried about the restrictions because “although they curb activity and free speech on the Internet a bit, they are also well-balanced so that nobody can harm you online.”

To some this change in the web is not a shock and was bound to happen because the government has previously banned not only books, but movies too.  The government would ban things that “touched upon sensitive subjects such as sex, politics and religion.”  One can begin to see just how broad the subjects are, and how banning things that touch on anything political directly limits the discourse between citizens and limits their freedom of speech to express their critiques of their government.

The Constitution of India provides the right of freedom of speech and expression in Article 19.  Do such restrictions of cyberspace violate this constitutional right?  Every person should be able to express themselves, particularly in regards to holding his or her government accountable.  The preamble of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that each human being shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear.  The Declaration says that this is the “highest aspiration of the common people,” to be able to speak their mind without fear of being punished.  Currently, while only 10 percent of the Indian population has access to the Internet, this means 125,200,000 right now may face restrictions in speaking their mind.  Their right of speech, a recognized human right, is at risk. It will be interesting to see how the international community and the Indian government proceed moving forward, in light of India’s previous abstinence from key UN resolutions to protect human rights.