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All Posts | Dec 03,2016

Press release: Report on ‘Online Harassment: A form of Censorship’

Mindless abuse and threats of violence are commonplace on online speech platforms like social media websites nowadays, says a new report titled, ‘Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship’, by SFLC.IN, a Delhi-based not-for-profit legal services organization.

Greater transparency and responsiveness in content moderation processes adopted by such platforms, along with renewed focus on capacity building for law enforcement agents could go a long way towards addressing the issue, finds the report. Attention should also be paid to educating people about existing mechanisms for combating online harassment, the report adds.

“There is a need for adequate legal protections against online harassment. However, this should not be seen under any circumstance as an endorsement of draconian laws like the now-repealed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act), which lent itself to wanton abuse due to its over-broad and ambiguous language”, said Baijayant Panda, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha, also one the interviewees featured in the report.

Free speech should not be restrained, unless it is transcending from talk to action: MP Baijayant Panda at SFLC.IN report launch.

Delivering the keynote address at the report launch, Mr Panda said, “Speech itself should not be restrained or shut down forcibly unless there is imminent clear and present danger of violence, or break down of public order.”

At the same time, there must be harmony between the laws that impact us in real lifeand those that impact us online. Online world can be liberating but if someone is threatening you, they should notbe able to get away with it by claiming free speech protections, he said.

The report is supported by the Software Freedom Law Center, New York and Jigsaw, a New York based think tank, and features dialogues with key stakeholders, including social media platforms and 18 prominent individuals involved in the debate around online hate speech and harassment.

The individuals interviewed for the report include legislators, journalists, civil society actors and targets of online harassment campaigns, who have had first hand glimpses at the plight of the harassed. The list of individual interviewed is provided in Editor’s notes below.Talking about the report, Mishi Choudhary, Executive Director at SFLC.IN said, “We have been studying online harassment as form of censorship that forces people out of participation in online policy discourses. This report’s goal is to explore this phenomenon in detail, document how people experience the effects of harassment in their lives as we work towards finding a workable and understandable ways to address the problem.”

“Online platforms presently suffer from lack of trust when it comes to guaranteeing users’ safety, and the significant levels of human intervention in content moderation further dilutes this trust as it involves personal biases”, noted Arvind Gupta, National Head, Information and Technology, BJP – another one of the report’s interviewees. “As we move towards digital democracy, it is absolutely critical for platforms to stay neutral. Platforms need to build a system of trust and non partisanship by heeding user feedback and implementing broad-based changes to their content moderation practices on the basis of this feedback”, he said.

Calling human intervention as of ‘paramount importance’ in maintaining civility on platforms, Chetan Krishnaswamy, Country Head, Public Policy, Google India said, “Considering the volume of content being generated, technology tools are at times necessary in content moderation. However, human involvement is still required to sift through the content and determine what is right and what is wrong.”

Dr. Anja Kovacs, Director of Internet Democracy Project, said that more law was not the solution to tackling the issue of online harassment. “I think it’s really important to not have the same standard for all intermediaries. Even though in this debate of Facebook versus Twitter, Facebook is often seen as the more safe platform but many activists still prefer Twitter because it allows anonymity.”

Representing that element of the state that enforces‘reasonable restrictions’ on freedom of expression, Anyesh Roy – Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police (Cyber Crime) said,“We often face jurisdiction issues with platforms; who sometimes refuse to share information. All platforms with consumers in India should respect the law of the land and share information when requested by the law enforcement.” He also talked about the need to evolve an “entire ecosystem and mechanisms within the intermediaries where grievances are addressed and everybody is able to enjoy their freedom of expression.”

Mahima Kaul, Head of Public Policy, Twitter India, talked about the policy changes introduced by Twitter last week where people can mute certain phrases or conversations. “This is indicative of how seriously Twitter addresses the issue of harassment and has a policy against hateful conduct.”

Saikat Datta, Cyber Security Consultant and Consulting Editor at Scroll.in, said,“If there is a certain amount of ugliness that reflects on social media platforms, we should be able to recognize the horrors of society and take action upon them.” Saikat added how ‘privacy’ should be a fundamental right as it has huge implications on, among other things, free speech.

The report suggests the following safeguards to social media users against online harassment and abuse:

  • Thoroughly screen the personal information shared online
  • Consider dedicating an email-ID for social media use
  • Avoid uploading photos that identify you along with your location to protect your identity
  • Use a pseudonym, if anonymity is relevant in your online activities
  • Keep a tab on information others post about you to ensure no personally identifiable information reaches unwanted hands
  • Run Internet searches on yourself to monitor unauthorized information appearing online
  • Use stronger passwords, and review your service providers’ privacy policies

The report further recommends the following steps to be taken in cases where users find themselves at the receiving end of targeted online harassment campaigns:

  • Report incidents to the concerned service providers
  • Block the perpetrators, when the perpetrators are limited in number
  • Approach law enforcement as a last resort, when there are real threats to physical safety
  • Seek help from social media influencers
  • Record all communications with perpetrators, service providers and law enforcement
  • Seek support from friends and family

For platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the report suggests the set of following 11 draft best practices to limit online harassment, with the express condition that these proposals require substantial deliberations before being formalized:

  1. Have in place rules that prohibit hateful, disparaging, and harassing content on intermediary networks; rules must be clearly articulated and designed for easy consumption; include illustrative examples for each category of prohibited content
  2. Generate awareness within user community on prohibited content; notification systems, promotional banners etc. could be leveraged for the purpose
  3. Enable easy and accurate reportage by users and third-parties; include easily identifiable “report” buttons; provide adequate opportunities to substantiate why content must be removed
  4. Have clearly defined review processes prescribing (where possible) objective standards for determining permissibility; refer to applicable national laws
  5. Deploy dedicated teams to review and disable content; provide periodic training to review teams on efficient identification and disablement;
  6. Review reports and disable content within a prescribed time frame (24/48/76 hours)
  7. Provide opportunities to creators of disabled content to justify themselves; include 
provisions for timely restoration of disabled content and reinstation of terminated accounts
  8. Share best practices within stakeholder community; contribute to building effective multi- stakeholder norms for tackling prohibited content
  9. Liaise with law enforcement; aid in investigation of reported offenses in consonance with established legal procedures
  10. Work with other stakeholder communities; engage with civil society organizations and academia on awareness generation; conduct trainings/workshops for law enforcement officials on reportage mechanisms so as to facilitate effective handling of complaints
  11. Promote counter-speech; invite counter narratives from public figures; offer incentives; conceptualize additional means to promote counter-speech

“This is but the first in a series of studies that SFLC.in intends to undertake in this domain. We invite people to join us as we attempt to build a sustainable dialogue around online harassment, as participatory and result-oriented initiatives are required to arrive at a definitive solution,” Ms. Choudhary added.

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Editor’s Notes

The list of interviewees for the ‘Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship’ report is below (in alphabetical order):

  1. Abhinandan Sekhri, Co-founder, NewsLaundry
  2. Arvind Gupta, National Head, Information and Technology, BJP
  3. Baijayant Panda, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha
  4. Bishakha Datta; Executive Director, Point of View
  5. Hartosh Singh Bal; Political Editor, The Caravan
  6. Inji Pennu; Writer, activist
  7. Karuna John; Freelance journalist
  8. Kavita Krishnan; Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Commission
  9. Meena Kandasamy; Poet, writer, activist
  10. Navrang S B; Former Head of Social Media, BJP
  11. PrabirPurkayastha; Editor, Newsclick
  12. Rajeev Chandrasekhar; Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha
  13. Rakshit Tandon; Cyber Security Expert and Consultant
  14. Ravish Kumar; News Anchor, NDTV India
  15. Rega Jha; Editor, BuzzFeed India
  16. Rohit Chopra; Associate Professor, Santa Clara University
  17. Saikat Datta; Journalist
  18. Sheeba Aslam; Journalist, scholar and Islamic writer

A copy of the report can be accessed here.

All Posts | Nov 19,2016

Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship – Release of Report and Panel Discussion

SFLC.in is pleased to announce the release our report titled “Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship” on November 22, 2016 from 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM at Lecture Hall 1, India International Centre (Annexe), New Delhi, at an event we are organizing in association with the Digital Empowerment Foundation, Internet Democracy Project, IT for Change, and the Foundation for Media Professionals.

We have grown increasingly concerned of late by the appreciable spike in instances of online harassment across platforms. Whereas online speech platforms like social media websites, blogs, and discussion forums set the stage for unprecedented levels of public engagement in relevant policy discourses, the widespread prevalence of abusive, threatening, and otherwise hostile content threatens to seriously hinder the efficient utilization of these critical speech platforms. Our report is a compilation of findings from a year of research, and attempts to provide an insight into relevant national and socio-political factors influencing exploitative uses of the Internet.

To mark the occasion, the release of the report will be followed by a panel discussion featuring legislators, law enforcement agents, industry representatives, civil society actors and other stakeholders in the field. The panel will discuss the issue of online harassment in context of the report, and will address such topics as trends in online speech, self-regulation vs. state-regulation as a means to curb online harassment, potential areas of stakeholder engagement, and awareness generation and capacity building initiatives among others.

An agenda for the evening is available here. If you would like to participate, kindly send in an email to mamta@sflc.in no later than 3:00 PM this Monday (November 21).

All Posts | Jun 09,2016

Economic Impact of Usage of FOSS in Government – IIMB Report – June 2015

A team of researchers, under a grant from ICFOSS, headed by Prof. Rahul De, Hewlett-Packard Chair Professor at IIM Bangalore, published a report on the "Economic Impact of Usage of FOSS in Government" in June 2015. The report studies the implementation of ICT in Education and Police departments in multiple states in India and concludes that adoption of FOSS in government entities can save thousands of crores of tax-payer money, which could in turn be utilized for better essential services for all.

Apart from economic advantages like saving ₹8300 Cr. by adopting FOSS in just two departments, the study also points to intangible benefits like fostering a maker (DIY) culture, shared understanding and encourages people to experiment and try new things.

Below are the key findings of the study. Full report is available here[PDF] for detailed understanding. Its released under Creative Commons Attribution -ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Key Findings


  • This study examines the impact of FOSS use in government departments in different states in India. The focus is on tangible and intangible impacts of FOSS. The study identifies barriers to adoption of FOSS and policy implications.

  • Desk research revealed FOSS use around the world. This also provided a view on the state of egov in India and the pertinent issues that had to be examined. This was followed by an RTI application effort, where many departments were sent information requests. This approach largely failed to elicit any meaningful information as almost all the RTI applications were rejected on technicalities.

  • A detailed field study was conducted over a period of seven months where team members visited government departments in seven states - Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Jharkhand. The study involved interviews of officials, IT managers, IT vendors and NGOs.

  • Two main departments were covered in the study - Education and Police. These departments were chosen because they had actively considered FOSS use and, in some cases, were using FOSS.

  • Around the world governments have adopted FOSS for tangible and intangible reasons. Tangible reasons for using FOSS are - for import substitution and to conserve foreign exchange; to improve egov capacity and to avoid vendor lock-in. Intangible reasons include - to revive entrepreneurship; to foster democracy and socio-technical alliances; and to transfer ICT skills to unserved populations.

  • Academic literature is ambiguous on policy implications of FOSS. Studies, alternatively, show that under certain conditions FOSS should be advocated, should not be advocated, and may be advocated with reservations.

  • Kerala stands out, amongst the states, for its adoption of FOSS for schools and the tangible and intangible benefits it has realized. Tangible benefits include massive cost savings, and intangible benefits include inculcation of a do-it-yourself culture amongst teachers and students and massive participation in the ICT education process.

  • The other states did not adopt FOSS and incurred tangible and intangible costs. Tangible costs were directly linked to the price paid for proprietary licenses and training and maintenance. The intangible costs include - overwhelming dependence on vendors; disconnet of teachers in the ICT education process, including setting syllabii and exams.

  • The police department at the centre had created the CCTNS system, for states to adopt to create a national crime records database. The system was implemented in two stacks - one on a FOSS platform (Java) and another on a proprietary platform (.Net). Different states chose different stacks, mainly based on their existing systems. Respondents in all the states felt that the choice of the stack was not theirs, and they had simply worked with what was given.
  • There were no strong benefits or costs of using either stack for the CCTNS. The costs were being paid by the centre, hence the issue was not strong. In the state of Jharkhand there were some committed FOSS enthusiasts in the department who built additional products using FOSS.
Prof. Rahul De' isalso a member of SFLC.in's governing body.