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India Sleepwalks To Total Surveillance

By Binu Karunakaran

02 January, 2009

It wasn't tough for a protagonist in a Kundera novel to figure out if he/she were living in a police state. Looking out of the apartment window they could see agents of the state keeping a watch over them from a car parked in the street round the corner. Sometimes shady characters broke in and rummaged through shelves looking for letters or diary notes. Their phones were wiretapped and there was absolutely no way of knowing if the friend they met for a drink last night was an informer or not.

It was our age of innocence and Kafka wasn’t thought to be a realist. Under repressive regimes people lived in constant fear, but the terror they felt and the machinery that enforced it was tangible.

Not any more. We live in a time when information about our personal lives and behaviour are being gathered, stored and shared by governments and multinational corporations on a scale that no one ever thought was humanly possible.

In the name of fighting terrorism governments across the world have been creating new regulations that infinitely augment the state power of surveillance with no meaningful public or parliamentary debate.

The Information Technology (Amendment) Bill, 2006 passed by the Indian Parliament recently allows the government to intercept messages from mobile phones, computers and other communication devices to investigate any offence. Not just cognizable offence, the kind you witnessed in Mumbai 26/11, but any offence.

Any email you send, any message you text are now open to the prying eyes of the government. So are the contents of your computer you surfed in the privacy of your home.

Around 45 amendments have been made to the original Act, which now treats both publishers of online pornography and its consumers on equal footing. A law so sweeping in its powers that it allows a police officer in the rank of a sub-inspector to walk in or break in to the privacy of your home and see if you were surfing porn or not. It’s the personal morality of the official that will decide whether the picture/content you were looking at was lascivious or appeals to prurient interest.

The amended Act also grants the state absolute power to block access to any website in the national interest. In short a total gag and surveillance act that doesn’t set any limits for law enforcers, or have inbuilt safeguards against misuse.

And if writing abstract legal language with hues of victorian morality can be considered an art form the architects of the new IT Act are nothing less than artists.

Thou shall not author a joke. Not even forward one

Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device, — (a) any content that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or (b) any content which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will... shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years and with fine.

Thou shall not surf Bollywood news

Whoever publishes/ transmits/ causes to be published/ transmitted in the electronic form, any material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, shall be punished on first conviction with imprisonment of either prescription for a term which may extend to two years and with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees and in the event of second or subsequent conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years and also with fine which may extend to ten lakh rupees.

Thou shall not watch porn

If the material is sexually explicit act or conduct then the punishment on first conviction is imprisonment which may extend to five years and a fine which may extend to ten lakh rupees. In the event of second or subsequent conviction imprisonment may extend to seven years and fine to ten lakh rupees.

But one has to admit that there is concern on part of the government on what could be the impact of the law on art and literature. So section 67 does not extend to any book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation or figure in electronic form, provided it is in the interest of science, literature, art or learning or religion. That means M.F Hussein can't be framed under IT Act anymore, and that photos and videos are not considered art.

‘So what?’ is the familiar rhetoric. Why fear if you've got nothing to hide? Why should law abiding citizens be bothered about some 'inevitable invasion' into privacy in the wake of increasing terror attacks? After all the perpetrators of terror are known to use Internet and other modern communication tools to plan and execute deadly strikes like that happened in Mumbai.

There is only one answer and it is a Benjamin Franklin quote: Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

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