Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on June 15, 2007
Gangs on the rampage, issuing threats to owners of some Internet cafes and attacking others, tearing up places that allowed users to access information via the Net that some zealots say insults their religious beliefs. Sounds like Gaza, right? Think again. This is happening in Mumbai, commercial capital of tech-savvy India. While many Indians like to think of their country as a high-tech superpower, some members of the Hindu group Shiv Sena apparently haven’t gotten the memo. They’re going after Internet cafes that haven’t sufficiently clamped down on a Google-related social networking service called Orkut. They find it offensive because it has given critics the chance to attack Shiv Sena and its leader, Bal Thackeray. “Orkut is used by many destructive elements to spread canards about India, Hindus, our gods and cultural heritage,” the India Daily last week quoted Abhijit Phanse, president of Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, the student group affiliated with Shiv Sena, saying in explanation for the group’s pro-censorship stand.
There’s something especially perverse about attacking Internet cafes in a country like India, where so many people rely on public computers for their online access. While the PC market is growing nicely in India, of course, most people still don’t have access to computers. Take out the Internet cafes and you cut many of them off from the Net. Not the best development model, needless to say. Here’s what Ashish Saboo, president of India’s Association of Public Internet Access Providers, had to say as reported yesterday in the Economic Times: “The Internet cafes are the only source of IT education for many people who cannot afford a personal computer at home. Attacks on cyber cafes will force many owners to shut shop. This will have an adverse effect on business and IT awareness.”
So what will the Indian government do about this? We’ll see in the next few days. According to this report from Zee News, the top regulatory agency in charge of the Internet is looking into the pro-censorship complaints: “We are examining the request from Maharashtra police (with whom Shiv Sena has filed the complaint) from all angles. We may take a few days to reach a solution,” Controller of Certifying Authority (CCA) N Vijayaditya, whose division is looking into the issue, said. Let’s hope that the government is planning nothing more than a symbolic slap on the wrist. Internet freedom is one area where India has a real chance to distinguish itself from China, which of course is notorious for its extensive censorship of the Internet. Internet companies in India are still in their infancy, and as I wrote in this Asiatech post, blogging has yet to take off in India. More censorship is not the way to solve that problem.