Surfing under surveillance

RUBEENA MAHATO

Democratic governments are just as likely to restrict civil liberties as despotic systems are, if not safeguarded by citizen vigilance and protection. The gatekeepers of our transitional republic seem to have got it into their heads that the internet is too free and must be regulated.

The pattern is impossible not to notice. It started with the infamous ban on ‘pornographic and objectionable sites’ last September. Then some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who said they couldn’t monitor subscribers were jailed. Now, the government is monitoring browsing details of high bandwidth subscribers. Ostensibly, it is to control illegal call bypassers, but it may not be long before the government starts getting too intrusive, riding on these same provisions to monitor more personal information including the private emails you sent out this morning.

The Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA) has directed ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to provide information of all subscribers who use a bandwidth of 1Mbps or more. The Nepal Police work closely with NTA technicians now in a joint taskforce to scan web details of users to identify VOIP racketeers.

ISPs gave in reluctantly and are providing the police with MRTG data of subscribers for network traffic monitoring. The government accused some ISPs themselves of illegal VOIP, making the controls necessary.

That’s all fine. The problem is that this seriously infringes on the right to privacy of subscribers. Why should private internet users be subjected to profiling to nab a few bypassers? Is the police intelligence capacity so poor that it doesn’t know the scamsters in this town? Rather than going after the bypassers, why not legalize VOIP instead so that consumers can make cheaper calls? 1 Mbps is not a big pipe, and innocent users can be easily harassed (or extorted) by an opaque government machinery.

MRTG data only allows monitoring the browsing patterns of users, but could be a stepping stone for the government to introduce censorship and intrude on private correspondence in the future.

The government’s argument is that it wants the information to fight crime, terrorism and porn. But the way in which internet users and their activities are being tracked (the most recent is the requirement of ID cards to use cyber cafes) the government’s motives are suspect.

Last year, the NTA made it mandatory for ISPs to install filtering software to block websites that are ‘obscene, seductive and corrupt social morals’. Any content threatening ‘religious harmony, national security, and goes against values and beliefs of the state’ were deemed objectionable enough to be blocked.

The kind explanation is that the government only wants to protect us from objectionable content and maintain law and order. But the fact that popular sites like huffingtonpost.com and even scientific journals like springer.com were on the list of blocked URLs raises alarm bells because of the state’s sheer incompetence and ham-handedness.

The government chose not to use legal methods to enforce this ban, unmindful that it was a violation to constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy and free expression. “It is simply not acceptable for the government to bypass legal channels and introduce such regulations by orders. Laws restricting the freedom of expression can be passed by parliament alone,” says human rights lawyer, Santosh Sigdel.

One of the safeguards against privacy infringements can be data protection laws. These are necessary because the government is looking at the use of smart cards with full information on individuals. The government may well demand ISPs produce any user data it wants, but there should be laws to ensure that the data are not misused to target individuals.

That the government managed to enforce such controversial decisions without much opposition tells a lot about the lack of public awareness about privacy issues. All unchallenged governments, democratic or despotic, exhibit the same oppressive tendencies. The question is what are we as citizens going to do about it?

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