1 November: Privacy and Data Retention Related Concerns at IGF

2 November 2006

By Namita

Privacy and Data Protection

The session on privacy and data protection and retention was a follow-up on the session on free flow of information in cyberspace. It was interesting to have issues regarding free speech set up in the previous session, which revolved primarily around the application and protection of rights under Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rigths, and its counterpart in European law.

One of the intriguing moments in the session on content regulations (..am taking liberties with the blogging format, and doing what in film terms is called a jump cut) was when Hanne Sophie Greve, representative of the Council of Europe, said that if a woman is being raped on camera, it should not be put on the internet without her consent. This seems paradoxical, to say the least. Isn't rape essentially about not asking and receiving consent ; in other words, if someone is raping a woman, what is going to stop him from threatening her and saying - put this up on the internet with your digital signature.

What Hanne Sophie Greve was probably trying to say was that for the internet to be a better place, let us do away with anonymity. Everybody has a digital signature, everyone can be tracked. What is not horrifying is that she's suggesting this as a solution to child pornography or harmful content on the Internet, its that our reality is seriously not that far away.

Look to the right of your screen if you have a google account, you will see that you are signed in under gmail while you do your searches. You can access your own search history, and seriously a search history of oneself is very indicative of various facets of one's life. From the mundane details of where you are, your name, job, location..it stretches to your preferences, sexual tastes, where you are going for your holiday, what place you booked at..etc.

For an interesting look on search history and privacy, you can actually look at www.dontdelete.com which has all the search histories of users of AOL, that was released by AOL to the public for research, including corporate research. A shriek of embarassment by most people, because it was so easy to figure out who a person was from the search history, led to AOL taking back the data. But as has been famously said, or not said at all but should have been said by now, if once something is on the internet, then it is always there. You can't delete it.

During the session on privacy, Pavan Duggal, lawyer in the Supreme Court of India, made anonymous expression in cyberspace - a right. Not a shameful habit or a ruse, but described it as a right and what makes the Internet a different space from others and has allowed for its explosion as a reality into our lives.

His presentation talked about various provisions in Indian law, that allow for interception of electronic transmission in India. He also pointed out that governments are the largest collectors and retainers of data. Though he acknowledged the right to anonymous cyber expression, he made allowances that for certain crimes, this anonymous veil can be pierced. He talked about suing 'John Does' or suing IP addresses till a person is not known.

Privacy intrusive technologies can be deployed without the end-user knowing. What I would like to add is that in India, even censorship can be deployed without the end-user knowing. In the case of films, books etc. censorship of anything is a fairly public process, and even if there is no debate, the author must be informed. But in the most recent case in India of blocking blogspot as a whole, the only way anybody found out was because they couldn't login to their own blogs. This is intriguing because even China when it blocks a website, allows for a notice to open saying - This site is blocked. In India, what you see is a familiar error page.

An interesting insight that I will walk away with from the IGF which I guess one was always aware of, but sort of never examined seriously, is that the internet is being regulated right now. It has been repeatedly stressed in many sessions, that what we do have already is not an untramelled entity or space for interaction and information excahnge, its a relatively free medium, but hardly unregulated.

The other presentation in this session was by the spokesperson for Amnesty International, who reiterated that privacy, data protection and retention are concerns for Amnesty as well.

He spoke about two incidents recently including the arrest of a person by the Chinese government, on the basis of information that Yahoo felt compelled to give to the government. The other incident was that of a person arrested in Vietnam, on the basis of information given by the attendant or owner at a cyber cafe.

At the end, he talked about Internet v.2 or the Social net, and talked about the massive transformation of the Internet even as we talk, into a different kind of space because of myspace, youtube etc. He also spoke about how the American government has invested in research as to how to use myspace for surveillance, At the same time myspace is used by young Hispanic people in America for civil society activities, and members of Witness (a group that believes in using video to report human rights violations from around the world) are using youtube to spread their videos and message.

Share this