New medium, old control

Kapil Sibal’s attempt to bring pre-censorship is impracticable and without doubt, brings back memories of the Emergency

If Caxton’s contribution to the print world remained unmatched for centuries, the World Wide Web, through its real-time communication has expanded information sharing exponentially. Not surprisingly, sometimes through it, reports and comments on events spread even before established news agencies start doing their job. The comments are not tempered down, nor any pre-set line of reasoning guides them. They are not from a few but from as many as who wish to join, and in as many languages as there are keyboards made for them.

Discourse and dialogues on comments spread viral in a virtual world but physically they impact sans frontier. Comments are free-wheeled without any framework for discussion. No assumptions or any given hold good. Many a time, venom is spewed in 140 characters, rants fall in as arguments, personal vitriol engulfs reason, pedestrian arguments stake claim for pedagogic halo. Notwithstanding, we have to take these in our stride, as people’s expression to the power of infinity. This is the nature of the technology we are dealing with.
Each of us, passively or actively, engage with this medium, through one or a couple of these networking biggies — Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Yahoo. In the recent past, through this medium, the sense of outrage felt by individuals about a single incident, accompanied by even amateur pictures, have touched the collective conscience of humankind. Be it a dying protester in Iran or Tunisia, the peaceful gathering in Tahrir Square or Times Square, the remote Tibet or our own Ramlila Maidan, instant response, if not support, was assured. Assured was also a cumulative opinion gathering momentum at an exponential rate. Not surprising if autocratic, oppressive, monolithic regimes cannot take it. Fragile and young democracies may also crumble at this deluge.
Even mature democracies fashioned in the Westphalian System are facing the pressure. Risking a simplification, it is as if the three core principles of the Westphalian nation-state are themselves being challenged by the social networks, albeit not by design. When countries like India, adopted the nation-state model with the “Sarva dharma (read panth) sama bhava” the first principle Cuius regio, eius religio was justifiably compromised with. The other two are sacred everywhere and are guaranteed under the supervision of the UN. They are: No intrusion into another’s domestic policies and legal equality between the states. Is there a threat to these principles looming large, in the virtual world?
Do we need discussions to strengthen international law, so that no groups using these networks dislodge stable democracies, acting, say, as fifth columns in a country? Can groups using these networks get vicious enough from their virtual states? For any perceived offence, can individuals in different geographical locales, netizens all, be taken to court in the country where the network providers’ headquarters is? Is it all right as long as autocratic regimes are being threatened through the power of free speech, pouring from all over, as it does? Can such power go against elected governments and if and when it does where and who draws the fine line? For now, these are clear speculations and need not worry us.
It is one thing to have advisories for compliance given to network operators when territorial sovereignty is undermined by misrepresentation. Similarly, when forums in social networks engage in disturbing peace and harmony between or within nations, governments seeking withdrawal of material is understandable. But what Union telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal has sought to do by calling the networking companies is none of these. He claimed that he wanted inflammatory content removed, particularly those that “offend Indian sensibilities”. And to highlight his concern he widely circulated among the journalists those “offending” materials targeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi. From the larger national to my party interest, please! Ideally, one of the otherwise busy party general secretaries could have written to the companies asking first for removal of the offending material, failing which the party could have taken them to court for defamation, under the existing law of the land.
The Information Technology Act, 2000, has adequate provisions for victims seeking justice. Even more, the IT Intermediary Guidelines Rules (Provisional), which have several safeguards inclusive of blocking contents, removal within 36 hours as steps before imposing steep fines, are available for all. There is a case to further strengthen the IT Act to explicitly include social networking sites. Basic elements of monitoring, interception and also of blocking Internet content already exist in the IT Act, 2000.
But Mr Sibal’s attempt to bring pre-censorship is impracticable and without doubt, brings back memories of the Emergency days. A couple of months ago, the media reported on how lakhs of mobile phones are being tapped on a daily basis, for interminable periods. Over a year ago, again the media reported that sophisticated imported gadgets are placed in vehicles which are tapping phones on the move. Till date, the country has not had a convincing answer to the question under whose authority these are operating.
Most happening and trending things seem to ruffle the government’s feathers: live coverage of civil society activities of any hue or colour, media reports on progress in certain cases in the courts, social audits and their fact finding reports, the CAG reports and his speeches, RTI replies, office memorandum from anyone of its own departments, government press releases and now you and me on the social media...Oh dear!
In the last two years, it is reported that 11 websites were blocked on the grounds of obscenity and offending contents. In the first six months of this year, the government had asked Google to clear out 358 items from its sites. As now, then too the government cited hate speeches and defamation as reasons for asking for the deletion. Interestingly however, it turns out that 255 of the 358 items were criticisms against the government and not as claimed. If the government understands the nature of this social media tide, it may learn to ride with it.

The writer is spokesperson of the BJP. The views expressed are her own.

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