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Confusion over Indian parliamentary rights-grab

Big IT bill sweeps through - or does it?

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Chaos in India’s Parliament – the Lok Sabha - shortly before Christmas saw the passage, without debate, of a major new bill designed to sweep up a number of outstanding IT issues from cybercrime to online porn.

At least, that’s what we believe happened. Such was the level of confusion, that at least one well known IT news site, Medianama , was left appealing to its readers for a copy of what Parliament had actually passed.

What appears to have been passed was the Information Technology (Amendment) Bill 2006 (pdf), which builds on law already passed in this area: most notably, the Information Technology Act 2000.

A key element in the justification of this law was protection of India’s "Critical Information Infrastructure". That goes some way to explaining why one piece of legislation managed to bring together issues as diverse as publishing sexually explicit material, video voyeurism, breach of confidentiality, intermediary leakage of data and e-commerce frauds.

The amended Bill gives the Central government serious powers to issue directives for intercepting, monitoring or decryption of any information held on or transmitted through a computer – although interception of telephones and letters may take place only "in the national interest".

Anyone who commits "cyber terrorism" with the intent to "threaten the unity, integrity, security and sovereignty of the country or to strike terror in the people", now faces the possibility of life imprisonment.

The Bill creates an offence of Obscene Publishing, which looks very similar to the comparable offence in the UK, and targets those who publish or distribute "lascivious" material likely to "deprave or corrupt" those who look at it. However, it goes far further than the UK law, making it an offence to publish material electronically "which contains sexually explicit acts".

A Cyber Appellate Tribunal has been created, to handle issues arising from any new regulations, although central Government will decide the number and composition of the tribunal at a later date. Rules enabling the authentication of electronic records by any electronic signature technique are now embodied in law.

Finally, the Bill also puts in place provisions to punish any organisations that abuse personal data with which they are entrusted.

Whether this Act will have any useful effect remains to be seen. Following its publication in 2006, it was criticised by the Standing Committee on Information Technology (pdf). They criticised it politely, but this could not hide the fundamental and far-reaching nature of some of their criticism.

The government, they noted, wanted new powers to combat cyber terror – without defining what cyber terror is.

It had failed to put in place explicit measures to combat child porn, arguing that the clauses governing publication of sexually explicit material would do the job. In this, as in the area of Data Protection, the government was not aligning India with internationally agreed standards.

The proposed law put in place measures to penalise organisations that misused data without actually setting out how personal information may be collected, processed, shared or used. Compensation would now be available for unlawful loss or gain arising from unauthorised use of data – but the issue of breach of privacy remained unaddressed.

This Bill, plus a number of other bills, were rushed through India’s Lower House on 23 December. The Information Technology Bill was then approved by the Upper House, again without debate, the next day.

On the surface, this is a victory for the government. But the combination of opposition hostility to the government’s high-handed action and the many internal inconsistencies within the legislation itself suggests that its effectiveness may be short-lived. ®

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