The rise of social media has created global communities and new ways of interaction. All over, this has helped to give a voice to millions of people, largely the youth, and democratised society; in the recent past it has even helped change governments.
Attempts by national governments and tyrants to prevent its reach has not been successful as the Internet is widely accessible and is a constantly evolving graph. It has brought together masses of people to demonstrate against injustice, created up to date information networks, countered propaganda of the official media and resisted attempts to shut down media. It is viral with millions of people logging on everyday, millions of pieces of content being uploaded, beyond the control of any entity. With its own dynamics, it is the largest community in the world and may soon surpass China as the largest “cyber nation”.
Of course, it has its side effects too. People are almost free to put up any material they wish, create sites which many may find offensive, launch hate sites, disperse criticism bordering on abuse, put up unverified accusations and information and so on. Social media sites do have their rules for users, and offenders are routinely suspended. However, supervision is mostly left to the website managers themselves. So, very often, information or material which many find offensive on grounds of religion, belief, conservatism, culture etc. is allowed to be posted despite protests, on the grounds of freedom of expression. Many governments and regulators have tried to put filters, censor material or initiate legal action to prevent what they call as abuse of the site, but most have failed; this has given increased impetus to individuals to express themselves.
It appears that a new global order is being created where established rules of acceptable content or criticism are suddenly invalid, driven by individuals and promoting the very liberal standards of certain countries.
In India, social media played a large role in bringing together unprecedented number of young people in a movement to protest against corruption nationwide, surprising the government and the political class. It raised awareness about major challenges in our society and gave a voice to millions. It made fun of our national leaders, criticised them freely, sometimes unfairly, made available large caches of information and informed reasoning and, above all, vastly expanded the scale of the debate.
So we now have the spectacle of our Union minister of telecommunications calling the social media companies to a meeting and asking them to censor objectionable material which could offend the sensibilities of some communities and individuals. He asked that they set up teams to do this within their companies as a means of self-regulations. There was also an implied threat of state action in case they chose to do otherwise. Of course, these companies protested and stated that they had very clear rules and any violation could be brought to their attention and a breach of such rules would invite action. However, most content today is not pre-screened — it is taken down only if objections are raised ex post facto. Therefore, they chose not to answer the request to actively screen and self-censor.
The social media community exploded in protest against this attempt by the government to police them and called this move the start of a drive towards censorship. This has raised serious issues, which need a debate. The basic issue is a clash of generations and ideas between the innate conservatism of the ancien regime and the voice of the youth and new media. The world has moved towards a more liberal interpretation of criticism and content while governments and a fair section of society continue to be static. The established order is being challenged and a new liberal global standard is emerging, bringing people together on a scale never seen before; all of them united by individual action and opinion.
Further, trust between the government in India, as a protector and guarantor of the right to free speech, and the individual, is breaking down, driven by abuse of power and selective action by the former and an empowering medium available to the latter. The recent recorded tapes, tapped by the government and leaked to the media, has further alienated sections of our society and very seriously called into question the government’s ability to be worthy of our trust. The large-scale misuse of the power of the government to record conversations on grounds of security has created fear about the violation of the right to free speech and compromised our personal security. Clearly the prevailing opinion is that the government is not to be trusted as earlier. The individual too has found a new voice unfettered by the government and is revelling in it. Of course the malcontents, discontents and no-contents are enjoying the discomfit of the government, complicating the issue further.
WikiLeaks has created a new paradigm where individuals in government and security establishments have become conscientious objectors and have used the protection and anonymity of the Internet to leak state secrets in an attempt to create transparency and expose what they hold to be wrong. This has increased transparency and enhanced individual liberty. Suddenly, the roles have changed and individuals feel empowered to take on the might of the state, whether democratic or not, without fear of retribution or violence. Civil society too has found a new medium to widely expose the excesses of the rich, the powerful and the mighty, attracting new adherents to their causes, while attempting to restore the balance of power between the individual and society. No wonder the slightest hint of control or censorship creates such a widespread storm of protest.
The solution is an enhanced and open debate on the new media and new norms of acceptable behaviour. The solution is not new regulations, pre-censorship forced by the government on the media, or censorship by the media. The new paradigm is complex, driven by ease of access, ease of use, very low costs, technological innovation, anonymity, difficulty of policing and enforcing legal action, and, above all, the heady power it gives every individual, group or community, of free expression — a power which is the basis of a liberal democracy that we all cherish. Further this is beyond the control of any entity due to sheer scale!
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and throughout history the individual has been at a disadvantage against an all powerful state. Now, to lose the advantage the individual has gained because of technology and succumb to the threat of action by the state and the political class will be an unprecedented and irretrievable loss. So the protests need to continue to force the state to back off till a consensus on the future is reached and the newly empowered individual feels adequately