Freedom of expression on the Internet has recently sparked debates in India-first in the state of Maharashtra and now in Delhi.
In November last year, when two teenage girls in Maharashtra criticised the statewide bandh (strike) following the death of the Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, they were arrested by the state police. Police had cited their Facebook comments against the bandh as the reason for their arrest. This invited widespread condemnation from Indians.
Former Supreme Court judge and Press Council of India chairman Justice Markandey Katju condemned the arrest in the following words: "To my mind it is absurd to say that protesting against a bandh hurts religious sentiments. Under Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution freedom of speech is a guaranteed fundamental right. We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact, this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act since under sections 341 and 342 it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime."
When the police realised the absurdity of their action, they released the girls on bail.
The IIPM controversy
People had barely forgotten this incident when an Indian businessman stirred the freedom of expression debate in India one more time.
At the centre of this ongoing controversy is a pony-tailed entrepreneur Arindam Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri runs a number of businesses, ranging from management schools to film production. In the eye of the storm is his chain of private business schools-the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM). Based in Delhi, he is the dean of this popular business school.
What is Chaudhuri's crime? For years now, there have been complaints against the IIPM "mainly around the fact that advertisements about the institute have not made it clear that it is not recognised or that it cannot confer MBA and other degrees". Chaudhuri finds such criticism defamatory.
Earlier this month, a court in Gwalior granted him the permission to block "defamatory" URLs on 70 websites and blogs in India, including mainstream magazines and newspapers. The blocked URLs include content from The Indian Express, The Economic Times, The Times of India, The Wall Street Journal, Outlook Magazine, FirstPost, Rediff, and The Caravan, among others. The gag order was carried out by the Indian Department of Telecom (DoT) that asked the ISPs to block the URLs related to Chaudhuri or IIPM on 16 February.
This gag order has riled up the Internet activists and attracted the ire of publishers of the affected websites. They have told media that "they had been neither informed of the verdict, nor asked to defend themselves in the lawsuit brought by Mr Chaudhuri".
In a defiant move, one of the affected magazines, The Caravan, said that they reposted the blocked article at a new URL.
Government a victim of its own censorship?
Part of the blocked URLs is a section of the website of the government's higher-education regulator, the University Grants Commission (UGC). The UGC had posted a notification that IIPM is not recognised as a university and does not have the right to issue certificates. This information was meant to warn students of the true nature of IIPM and its status. Chaudhuri has argued that UGC need not post any such warning as IIPM never claimed that it was a university or it had the right to issue (MBA) certificates.
In the wake of the URL bans, Indian media also reported that an anonymous hacker group targeted IIPM websites on Saturday (16 February). They claimed that they had brought down as many as 16 IIPM-related websites for around nine hours.
"This country has laws and you cannot go and defame someone on online media. I am going to contest anything that is defamatory," Chaudhuri told NDTV on Monday (18 February). In his statement, he also said the government's decision to "unblock" the UGC webpage would amount to contempt of court.
Soon after the controversy broke out on Twitter after a report by medianama, Shashi Tharoor, a junior minister in the Human Resources and Development ministry, tweeted that he has asked Milind Deora, his counterpart in the IT ministry, to unblock the UGC link that was affected.
Now, the Government of India has decided to appeal against the court order that asked for banning of the "defamatory" websites.
According to an NDTV report, the government will challenge the verdict at the next hearing on 28 February.