Reuters reported this morning that India is rolling out a surveillance program that will give government agencies the ability to tap directly into emails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament. The government said this widespread monitoring is in an effort to safeguard national security.
India is the most populous democracy in the world. There are 900 million landline and mobile phone subscribers and 120 million Internet users. The subcontinent is one of the most vibrant emerging markets for tech development and startups in the world, but it is also riddled with social unrest. China and Pakistan pose serious threats to India’s national security, and Kashmir has been called “the most dangerous place on Earth.” Within the country, religious divides contribute to a volatile atmosphere.
The Central Monitoring System (CMS) first came into being after the Mumbai bombings in 2008. The Indian government began cracking down on Internet freedom. It used the Information Technology Act to expand censorship and monitoring capabilities and has put pressure on Internet service providers and private companies to remove certain types of information under threat of imprisonment.
Then in 2011, The New York Times reported that the Indian government asked companies like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo to “prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory, or defamatory content before it goes online.” Internet freedom came to the forefront again in August 2012 as a result of tension in Assam, a North-Eastern state in India where there is conflict between Muslims and Hindus. The Indian government ordered more than 300 specific URLs blocked from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, Wikipedia, and even the Times of India for allegedly promoting violence.
The CMS met with little public debate, and the government quietly began rolling out the system state by state in April 2013. The Times of India called it “the single window from where government arms such as the National Investigation Agency or the tax authorities will be able to monitor every byte of communication.” The paper also reported that privacy and Internet-freedom advocates are worried that in the name of security, the government would abuse the system that doesn’t have adequate safeguards to protect ordinary citizens.
“In the absence of a strong privacy law that promotes transparency about surveillance and thus allows us to judge the utility of the surveillance, this kind of development is very worrisome,” said Pranesh Prakash, the director of policy at the Centre for Internet and Society to the Times. “Further, this has been done with neither public nor parliamentary dialogue, making the government unaccountable to its citizens.”
Again, sound familiar?
The CMS cost around $74 million and will allow the government to track data from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google without seeking a court order. Reuters said the government is building intercept data servers at private telecommunications firms so they can tap into communications without telling the providers.
India is now going through a similar debate as the U.S.. In a democracy, where is the balance between privacy and security? To what extent must there be government transparency and checks and balances before we slowly slip away from democracy toward authoritarianism? In the era of the Internet, does anyone have a reasonable expectation of privacy? In the era of nuclear weapons, is privacy really the most important thing?
Every country on Earth will face these issues at some point. China and Russia both have full-blown censorship programs, and 40 countries around the world practice Internet filtering of some form. Filtering and monitoring are, of course, not the same, but they are connected. Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt published an article in the Times of India that called for a free and open Web.
“In 10 years, it will be almost impossible to describe to any child in India what life was like before the Internet,” he wrote. “Now is the moment for India to decide what kind of Internet it wants for them: an open Internet that benefits all or a highly regulated one that inhibits innovation.”
For India, the CMS doesn’t only impact security but also the economy. Schmidt said the government should view the Internet as a way to improve and develop the country — to disseminate knowledge, enhance education and dialogue, and solve local problems. The more they regulate, monitor, censor, and restrict — the more a culture of fear grows around what we do online — the less likely it is that the Internet will become a powerful, transformative force for good. That goes for the U.S., too.
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