Saturday, 5 September 2015

Internet and Security Issues

Instances:
  1. 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence and 
  2. 2012 exodus of Northeasterners from Bengaluru as prime instances where social media played mischief
  3. Anti-reservation protests in Gujarat turned violent, prompting the State government to shut off mobile data services for a week.  
  4. Following protests in Imphal this week over the Protection of Manipur People (PMP) Bill, 2015, the Manipur government too blocked Internet access in several parts of the State. 
  5. In Gujarat, the Internet lockdown was in place in major cities like Ahmedabad till Tuesday, affecting the lives of tens of thousands.
Impact:
  1. Ordinary users and businesses were unable to send messages via 3G services, 
  2. make payments through Internet banking portals, 
  3. file taxes online, or 
  4. use location-based apps for transport. 
The State government’s decision to ‘kill the Internet’, prompted by the concern that messages inciting violence could be circulated along online platforms, was disproportionate. But this overreach is a sign of the government’s vulnerability, not its enthusiasm to clamp down on speech
Options and their limitations:
  1. A security crisis confers governments with wide legal latitude to restrict the flow of online information. They can do so in three ways: 
    1. by targeting the content, medium or device
      1. Content-specific restrictions usually take the form of 
        1. DNS (Domain Name System) seizures, where governments ask a website host (say, GoDaddy or Bluehost) to de-register a domain name (say, www.yestogujaratviolence.com).  
          1. BUT - A website could easily park its domain elsewhere after its registration has been withdrawn.
      2. A second type of restriction could be aimed at the medium: 
        1. governments can require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to websites peddling inflammatory content. 
          1. BUT - ISP blocks can be circumvented through proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPNs).
      3. A third kind of restriction targets the handheld device
        1. where the government asks a phone manufacturer to create ‘back doors’ for monitoring and filtering content on its devices. 
          1. BUT - And creating online ‘back doors’ is a dangerous exercise because the security vulnerability so created can be exploited not just by governments but by miscreants as well. 
  2. So, all three methods are blunt, and could even be counterproductive
    1.  This is why Gujarat blocked access to mobile Internet altogether rather than targeting those websites or platforms that were promoting violence.
  3. data localisation laws that require companies to set up servers in India cannot be a substitute for sound privacy policies.
  4.  Central and State governments in India share an adversarial relationship today with social media companies. Authorities say their compliance requests go mostly unheeded. Takedown notices published by Internet companies are often selective, highlighting the most egregious demands to paint governments in poor light. The argument that the private sector is standing up to government to protect user interests simply does not hold water. The privacy policies of some of the biggest Internet companies today leave much to be desired. Many platforms have failed to regulate hate speech. If that is not all, data collected by social media from India is being farmed abroad for commercial purposes.
Solution:
  • It is in the public interest that foreign Internet companies cooperate with governments during security crises.
  • Strong Privacy policies -
  • Without a sustained dialogue between both parties, the government will continue to deploy ham-handed measures
  • They neither serve the interests of the user, whose daily activities are affected, nor those of social media platforms, which are missing out on an opportunity to be valuable conduits for life-saving information. 

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