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The next china indeed

For a supposedly tech-savvy country, India has some worryingly weird ideas about the internet

This week in wonky internet news from India, the Delhi High Court asked the government why children—defined as anyone under the age of 18—were allowed to open accounts on social networking sites. The court was responding to a petition filed last year by KN Govindacharya, a 70-year-old former politician.

Govindacharya argues that the Indian contract act stipulates that minors cannot enter into a contract. Furthermore, lying about your age is a violation of the IT act and the Indian majority act. (Govindacharya was unreachable for comment.)

It is not uncommon for social activists to ask courts to rid Indian society of social banes. Last month, a small-town lawyer urged the Supreme Court to ban online pornography on the grounds that it encourages rape. (The petition makes no mention of the effects of the regressive attitudes of some Indian men or the lack of safeguards for women in public spaces.)

Courts are not obliged to accept such “public interest litigation.” But the attitude towards the internet among India’s ruling classes broadly matches Govindacharya’s. He wants social networks to verify their users identities. In 2011, the minister of communications wanted them to pre-screen content uploaded by users. Needless to say, this did not work out.

The Indian state is understandably worried about the use of communications technology for the purposes of crime. Its solutions, however, tend to address symptoms rather the cause. Using a computer at a cybercafé now involves registering with government-issued ID, mobile phone connections require extensive documentation, and India at one point even considered making it illegal to leave Wi-Fi internet connections unsecured. Because terrorists might access the internet through them.

Last week, the government introduced a “central monitoring system,” which reports say will allow the government to listen in on everything from telephone calls to social network messages.

If India has an uneasy relationship with technology, it is even more suspicious of its citizens. It is easy to laugh at its unsophisticated gerontocracy. See for example the video above, featuring a tax bureaucrat asking how “the cloud” will function if it rains. But the cluelessness of India’s leaders distracts from more worrying aspects of India’s cyber-paranoia.

The Mumbai Mirror reports today that an activist was arrested in the southern city of Secuderabad yesterday after she posted a Facebook update critical of a former chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh. In November, two girls were arrested near Mumbai for a Facebook post questioning why the entire city had to shut down in response to the death—from old age—of a local leader. A teenager was arrested the same month for “vulgar” comments about another local leader.

India is known for its many engineers and their work in technology. That may or may not be deserved. More important is its reputation as a free and open democracy. As long as it continues to treat its citizens like children—and criminals—that claim will seem increasingly hollow.

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