Can the internet be policed?

  • Even as the government attempts to stifle freedom of expression online, it continues to display a fundamental lack of understanding about the internet
- Prajesh SJB Rana, Kathmandu

Apr 29, 2019-

While arguments can be made for the internet both as a positive or a negative space, what it really is a neutral space, where users can indulge in political commentary, advocacy and social interaction, albeit with various degrees of freedom. But the very nature of the internet--as a non-localised, decentralised system--makes it a medium difficult to control. Attempts, however, are increasingly being made by government from all over the world to control, censor and mediate digital content through legislation.

In 2008, the US proposed a highly controversial bill--the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)--that could’ve been used to censor certain parts of the internet under the guise of combating digital piracy. The bill was so unpopular on the internet that many popular sites like Wikipedia, Google and an estimated 7,000 other websites coordinated a service blackout in protest. Even after such widespread opposition from online communities, governments are still attempting to censor the internet. Two more bills, Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), have been proposed in the United States since  SOPA.

Perhaps the most notorious example of internet censorship is China, with its ‘Great Firewall’ that censors and filters content. A number of popular web giants, Google being the most prominent, are absent in China, because many refused to comply with Chinese legislation regarding privacy and content censorship. More recently, in February, India proposed a series of rules and regulations that would provide the government with sweeping powers to block or filter content from websites like Facebook, Google, YouTube and others.

In Nepal, the decade-old Electronic Transaction Act (ETA), enacted in 2006, was formed when the internet was not as widespread as it is today and fails to take into account many contemporary web security and privacy issues. The bill primarily revolves around electronic data, records and signatures, which, while important, addresses only a limited subset of digital content today. The ETA, however, was vaguely worded and as such, has been used for everything--from charging online harassers to detaining journalists.  

But things look like they are about to get worse. Learning from its larger neighbours, the government has proposed a new policy that addresses modern digital problems like cyber security, online harassment and digital data management. The KP Sharma Oli-led government’s ‘IT Bill’, attempts to address these issues but remains as poorly-articulated and thus, dangerous, as the ETA.

“Nepal’s cyberspace has generally been free,” says Santosh Sigdel, an internet freedom advocate and president of the Internet Society’s Nepal chapter. “It was only the royal regime that had banned the internet, along with other media. Nevertheless, the Electronic Transaction Act has been used to place restrictions on freedom of speech at times. Media as well as general people have been booked under the provision of ETA.”

The first seeds of this authoritative IT bill were sown in September 2018, when the Ministry of Information and Technology decided to ban all sexual content in response to the growing number of sexual crimes in the country. Although newspapers wrote editorials about the ban, most saw it as an attempt to morally police content that the government deemed as offensive. A more insidious reading saw it as a trial, an experiment that first choose to block content that was already societally disdained. No mass protests erupted in the face of the porn ban, which only seemed to embolden the government. More recently, it again decided to ban PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), the popular online multi-player game. However, this ban was quickly overturned by the Supreme Court while the ban on pornographic content remains in place.

When it was proposed, the IT bill sparked controversy among IT experts, rights activists and Internet Service Providers with its vague and authoritative approach to cyber law. Control and censorship seem to be at the heart of the bill, where the power to take down any information that is produced with the intent to “discredit, criticise or defame” is provided to state-level or federal governments. With such far-reaching powers of censorship, any kind of political satire, commentary or criticism could be identified as being dissident.

“The new IT Bill has many provisions in place that have scope for misuse,” says Sigdel. “There is confusion among drafters of the bill themselves. Given how the bill is drafted, social media platforms and social media content are both being regulated with the same provisions.”

According to the IT Bill, all international social media sites need to register with the Nepali government if they are to provide services to Nepali citizens. While international social media companies might be willing to work with larger economies such as India, they might not see the benefit of registering in Nepal, given how small the country is. If these social media companies refuse to work with the Nepal government, they could very easily be banned.

But the question remains: will these bans actually work? Ever since internet censorship has existed, so have internet freedom advocates who’ve found ways to bypass enforcement technologies. While there are many ways to censor certain portions of the internet, such as Internet Protocol (IP) address blocking, Domain Name System (DNS) filtering and Uniform Resource Locator (URL) filtering, all of these methods can be easily circumvented through the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). VPN services work by extending a private network into a larger public network where user connections are routed through nodes based in other countries. VPNs are so comprehensive that even China’s elaborate Great Firewall can be circumvented through the use of VPN services.

And as censorship laws evolve, so do VPN services and their users. According to a 2017 New York Times review, 50 countries around the world have already enforced some form of internet censorship, and as a response, VPN services have become cheaper, more accessible and robust. According to one 2018 report, the number of VPN users worldwide had grown by 350 percent since 2016, with high numbers of users reported from censorship heavy countries in Asia.

After the porn ban, many savvy Nepalis turned to VPNs to circumvent the system. If the PUBG ban had gone into effect, most would certainly have done the same thing. So if users are simply going to bypass the ban and get to the censored content anyway, what is the government trying to accomplish?

In the past, censorship has helped budding economies thrive under a digital landscape largely dominated by western companies. Heavy censorship in China helped budding Chinese startups like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent grow into massive companies. China’s prolific WeChat would perhaps not have turned into the digital behemoth it is today if it wasn’t operating within a heavily censored cyberspace.

But is this what the Oli government is attempting to do in Nepal? If we are to play devil’s advocate, perhaps the government hopes that digital restrictions will force Nepali startups to come up with innovative solutions. However, this does not seem to be the case. No other legislation regarding startups or internet-based companies have accompanied the IT bill. Instead, cases of censorship and arrests of journalists for defamation have followed.   

“The punishment proposed for some offences are excessive,” says Sigdel. “They seem to be drafted to create a prior-censorship regime. It may also impact the job of mediapersons.”  

For activists like Sigdel, the new IT bill is aimed squarely at censorship. Even if the government does not directly infringe on freedom of expression rights, the punishment could lead people to self censor themselves, for fear of being prosecuted.

With censorship, also come issues of privacy. If this government decides to go after people posting content that it does not approve of, all of your digital content could be open to the government. This could lead to even further reprimands by the government on individual social media users based on their activity.

So while the IT bill puts together a much-needed set of laws to govern Nepali cyberspace, it still reeks of an unwillingness to understand the nature of the internet. The wording of the bill itself suggests that drafters do not really understand the workings of cyberspace and thus, lean more towards  suppressing and policing users. 

Advocate Sigdel believes that the internet should be free of censorship and control and people should be allowed to freely access information without any hindrances. This is the internet that many advocates believe in.

“The internet should be free,” says Sigdel. “People should be able to exercise their right to seek, receive and impart information. They should be able to express their thoughts and views without threat of persecution.”

Published: 30-04-2019 06:30

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