UPSC Mock Essay: Internet: the new battleground for governments and people on free expression, privacy and transparency?

The Neolithic Revolution was symbolized by the invention of wheel. The Industrial Revolution is marked by the coming of steam engine. And the face of the Information Revolution is the Internet. What is common amongst these three revolutions spanned across tens of thousands of years in mankind’s history is perhaps that each one of them changed the way man lived forever. And this they achieved by increasing the span of the possibilities of human interactions and by increasing human productivity.

The wheel increased human reach and made it possible for them to travel faster and farther – seeing and learning from each other. Human knowledge quickly spread and ‘accidents’ such as agriculture were adopted widely and perfected upon. The steam increased human productivity and made specialization of labor possible on a scale witnessed never before. Knowledge was specialized upon and production increased further. Internet dismantled the barriers to communication and brought people closer together than ever before.

A new Age was thus ushered in. Expressing oneself to others became cheaper and freer compared to the traditional media forms. Sharing and accessing information was now at the stroke of keys (later ‘touches’). And all this could be done in the comfort of great anonymity which a heavily crowded place offers. Technologies evolved and privacy of communications was ensured to a great degree too. It seemed that free speech, privacy and transparency would be the cornerstones of this new internet based Age.

With the above advantages, the use and importance of internet grew exponentially. And once it became too big to ignore, the usual counter forces of free speech, privacy and transparency arrived. The traditional conflict groups emerged and began to carry on their activities on internet as well. These traditional conflicts can be divided broadly into three categories – (i) governments vs governments (G2G); (ii) governments vs people (G2P); and (iii) people vs people (P2P).

It seems that the internet has became the new battleground of these traditional conflict forms. In the following, we will examine each type of these struggles. We will then examine if it is possible to reduce, if not eliminate altogether, such conflicts and how alternatively internet can be used in a constructive way to promote well being for all.

I. Governments vs Governments (G2G) Conflicts

The G2G conflicts have emerged mainly as a result of the extension of the traditional interstate rivalry to this medium in the form of cyber wars. It reminds us of the nuclear race age and the space race age. The advantage offered by internet has made most governments rely on it even for their most critical security systems. In many countries, entire government communications, traffic, fire, electricity systems, strategic commands, nuclear stations all rely on internet for their functioning. And this dependence is used by the other states to spy, steal and sabotage such systems. The host government then creates its own defensive and offensive cyber security architecture and a war ensues in the cyber space. This form of warfare is called cyber warfare and in future it will become the most important mode of warfare.

The recent US-China spat accusing and warning each other over such activities is a worrying example. The use of sophisticated Stuxnet virus which paralyzed hundreds of Iranian centrifuges and the Flame virus which transmitted volumes of key Iranian security data to its foes is another example of the damage it can do. Even India is not immune from cyber warfare attacks and there are reports of our critical cyber assets getting hit time and again. To counter such attacks, we have created a cyber security architecture involving agencies such as CERT-In and NTRO.

However, the incidence, sophistication and damage caused by cyber attacks is only increasing. Thus, before it leads to irretrievable deterioration of international relations as the nuclear race and the space race before it threatened to do, it is essential that the major powers of the world today sit down and devise international standards, MoUs and threat mitigating mechanisms guiding the use of cyberspace in warfare.

A related issue here is the control over the critical internet architecture including the DNS. Currently most of it is located in / controlled by US based entities. The naming allocation system i.e. the DNS is controlled by ICANN, major payment gateways are controlled by US companies, most of the major social media websites and search engines are US based. This gives that country immense advantage over the others in the cyber space. The US has resisted the calls to give away this control to international organizations citing the threat to free speech, privacy and transparency of ordinary people from the authoritarian regimes in many other countries. However, as the recent PRISM revelations have shown, it itself doesn’t shy away from violating these principles for its own benefit. The real reason, then perhaps is that it doesn’t want to share the control of internet and the power it gives with others.

However, such an exclusive control is not only detrimental to peaceful international relations, but is also a threat to the principles of free speech, privacy and transparency. Here again we need an international treaty (like the one on outer space where all parties accepted it as a common resource and agreed to its peaceful use) putting the critical internet architecture under UN control and explicitly seeking to preserve the above principles.

Also, it would be unfair to say that internet exists only as a battleground in the international sphere. Let us not forget the role it plays in increasing coordination among various state parties. Things such as sharing of tax information and information on money laundering among various states would have been very time consuming without internet. The work of many UN based agencies, many international government sponsored research projects, have received a tremendous boost from the internet. Thus what we need is only to evolve international standards and principles guiding the use of internet like we did earlier for nuclear weapons and outer space.

II Governments vs People (G2P) Conflicts

Internet has demolished communication barriers and thus has facilitated people to people communication greatly. This has made it a very useful tool to mobilize people bypassing the traditional media. Thus regimes after regimes in the Middle East blew apart in the winds of the Arab Spring and the ordinary people there were organized against the government not by the traditional media but by the social media services like twitter.

And who can forget the photograph of the Egyptian woman in the blue bra being lifted and manhandled by the police? Or that of a lone man being stripped and beaten mercilessly by the state police? The standing man of Turkey has become the face of the ‘new’ passive resistance movement there. Nearby in Bangladesh, it were the bloggers and not the media houses or political parties who created a nation wide movement opposing the religious fundamentalist forces there accused of committing unspeakable war crimes. Perhaps if Tianammen Square had happened today, its outcome would have been completely different and the ‘tank man’ would have been the biggest hero of our times?

What internet has done is to turn ordinary people like you and me into journalists and given us a potentially viral audience. These photographs and videos were captured live by ordinary people, uploaded on youtube or social media and within minutes went viral getting millions of hits. And telling the tale of oppression in its rawest form, they quickly build more public opinion and thousands more pour in next day to join the protests. Even in otherwise ‘peaceful’ times, various popular social media pages and handles constantly build a public opinion against the unpopular acts of the government, be it corruption, inflation, casteism or communalism / pseudo secularism. The traditional media is today, unfortunately, involved in dubious connections with business houses and political parties (even the recent TRAI report says over 80% of the news channels in India including some of the biggest ones are loss making and receive questionable private funding from time to time) and the Chinese wall between the editorial management and owners no longer exists. People’s trust in it is going down and internet has emerged as the medium where speech has never been freer, more private and transparency never higher than ever before.

But clearly with the internet becoming so influential and a potential ‘threat’ the governments of the day could no longer afford to sit back. Internet had to be monitored and public opinion sensed and movements quelled before they could be born. Almost sounding like a plot of some sci-fi movie are the revelations made by Edward Snowden about the PRISM program. Shocking… what we thought was private was being snooped upon by the government. It is an open secret how the authoritarian Middle East regimes forced the ISPs to provide information about the twitter handles of the protestors and how arrests were made overnight. Even in our own country, a day after the PRISM revelations, the government disclosed that it is planning to constitute the Coordination Committee on Cyber Space (CCCS) to better carry out snooping activities on internet communications. Blocking of social media pages and twitter handles by executive action is not unusual in our country as we have seen lately in the wake of disturbances following the Rohingya muslim violence in Myanmar when the handles / blogs of various right wing and anti-corruption activists were blocked by executive action without giving any explanations. The arrests of the ‘facebook girls’ of Thane and the Jadhavpur University professor for ‘irking’ the state chief minister are other glaring examples of arbitrary executive action against free speech and privacy on internet.

What is common in the above cases is that everywhere the governments claim to be doing such actions to protect people’s lives by projecting such actions as important tools in fighting terrorism or maintaining public order. Such a claim cannot be dismissed off hand. Terrorists and social miscreants have grown sophisticated today and use the privacy and freedom of speech offered by internet to further their own causes. How easy it has now become for some intelligence agency of some country to mobilize people in the Arab countries sitting thousands of miles away or for the terrorist organizations and intelligence agency in our neighborhood country to fuel communal violence in our country. Such activities need to be spied upon and curbed before lives are lost.

But in doing so we must respect one principle almost universally accepted in all national / international laws. Action taken should be proportionate to the threat perceived. For otherwise, a brute force action can result in culling even the genuine birds and not just the sick ones. There are many reasons for that. First, almost everywhere such executive actions do not have any legal backing. Even if legal backing is there, the proceedings are shrouded in so much secrecy that it becomes very difficult to establish if the principle was followed. Second, power corrupts. Giving so much power in executive hands will make it prone to use such power not only in public interest but also to defend its own interests. So while targeting the terrorists, it may begin to target the political opponents, civil society, important citizens who speak differently from what it wants. There are allegations time and again against the misuse of IB for political reasons. What can assure us that the fate of internet snooping authority would be any different?

Perhaps what we need is a clear cyber snooping law laying down transparent mechanisms and effective oversight mechanisms to ensure that while citizen lives are protected against terrorism and other miscreants, genuine dissent is not curbed. The law must protect the public, not the public office holders.

At the same time, the constructive role played by the internet in promoting government – people interaction and the three ideals of free speech, privacy and transparency cannot be overlooked. It has strengthened the RTI – its procedures have become so easy now and various departments have made their information easily accessible to the public by putting it on their websites. It has increased citizen awareness about government policies and laws. It has increased citizen participation in governmental activities. Citizens can now directly send their comments to the various committees setup to examine different issues. The finance minister makes himself available on Google hangout to explain the budget to the general public. The Planning Commission’s ‘Hackathon’ is an innovative way of increasing citizen participation and awareness about the major programmes shaping the destiny of the nation in next few years. And the ‘Open Data’ movement is such an important step where most of the data generated by the use of public funds would be shared with the general public. This would not only increase transparency but also lead to better analytics and ultimately better policy formulation and implementation.

III People vs People (P2P) Conflicts

The battle over free speech, privacy and transparency on the internet is also being fought among the people themselves. And these manifest most openly around the issues surrounding defamation, pornography and intellectual property protection. The Indian Constitution subjects free speech to the restriction of defamation and morality (among others) and internet is no exception. But what complicates the issue here is the nature of the technology which renders the traditional methods of media control either ineffective or too aggressive.

Recently there was the case of a video containing explicit sexual activity involving a leading politician from the ruling party. He rightfully obtained a court order to restrain the circulation of the video and its removal. However, when the original video was removed, many other copies sprang up from different locations. When they were removed, many more would come up. This was because of the ease which internet offers in sharing content. The traditional methods were rendered virtually ineffective.

On the other side of the scale is the case of defamation suits filed by Arindam Choudhary of IIPM. He uses court orders to indiscriminately block any and every site hosting content critical of IIPM or himself. That the truthfulness of the allegedly ‘defamatory’ content is not verified while giving the blocking orders is justified saying they are not final verdicts but only interim injunctions to provide immediate relief to the complainant. This way even the UGC website carrying an official circular that IIPM is not recognized by it was blocked! And that the bloggers and websites hosting the content are not given a chance to defend themselves before being blocked is justified by erroneously claiming in many cases that due to the nature of internet it is not possible to reach out to the other party. And while implementing the blocking orders, entire websites are found to have been blocked instead of those specific sections only which hosted the allegedly ‘defamatory’ content. Criminal cases are filed in courts in the far flung areas of the country and thus the blogger is effectively bulldozed into silence by the sheer power of Mr. Choudhary’s institutions irrespective of the final verdict of the court.

The above cases clearly highlight that the courts, the executive, the implementing agencies need to understand the nature of the technology better and such ways need to be evolved which strike a fine balance between defamation and free speech. What makes this issue more delicate than the traditional media forms is that while in the traditional media, both sides are likely to be big with the capacity to fight it out in the courts, on the internet, one side is an ordinary citizen unable to match the might of the other side and thus likely to be silenced by the mere threat of legal action.

Similar is the case of intellectual property protection. Internet has given a great boost to piracy and has resulted in great loss to the content generators and copyright holders. Traditional methods have been found to be ineffective. On the other hand are the blanket John Doe orders obtained by many filmmakers recently (for example Singham) which led to blanket ban on file sharing websites. The SOPA/PIPA acts were perceived as being too stringent and crude in their attempt to protect IPRs and unsurprisingly witnessed some of the biggest online protests which included some of the biggest internet names like Wikipedia.

Thus again a need is highlighted to step out of the traditional thinking and draft laws and regulations which strike a fine balance as has been done for the other form of media in the past. At the same time the constructive impact of internet in spreading harmony among people while at the same time promoting free speech, privacy and transparency should also be emphasized. Various geographical / functional unit / interest based groups have emerged which lead to greater people to people interaction and exchange of thoughts. One can stay in touch with her loved ones in a safe and private way (at least private from other people if not the government). Activists dedicated to the same cause now collaborate on the internet through multi authored blogs, social media pages and online forums, educating people and thus promoting transparency in the system.


Thus in the conclusion, it must be accepted the internet is emerging as a new battleground for various kind of conflicts. But this is because it is a new technology and clear rules of the games are not established. This is not a new phenomenon and has happened in the past every time a new technology has surfaced. So we need to sit down and devise universally acceptable standards and guidelines which strike the fine balance of preserving free speech, privacy and transparency while at the same time protecting people’s lives and dignity, maintaining national security and safeguarding intellectual property. At the same time we must recognize the constructive role played by the internet and strive to build upon it.

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