On the same day that Salman Rushdie’s entrance to the country is being denied because of the banned novel, “The Satanic Verses”, web censorship around the world has come to a fore. India has a decision to make – democracy or not?
But, why is there no national movement similar to this when a New Delhi High Court judge in India threatens that he can block Facebook, Google, Youtube and others “just like China” for posting anything “obscene, objectionable, and defamatory”? Our telecomm Minister’s crusade against these sites, claiming that we must pre-screen content to remove anything “offensive”, seems to have infected a vast majority of the country to believe that freedom of expression must abide by people’s sensibilities and that in a “socially conservative” country, these freedoms may cause “communal riots”. The irony of course is that there has been no physical violence caused by any of this content in India. At the same time, Vinay Rai, long-time journalist has according to WSJ taken on the role of “India’s Censorship Crusader.” Well, good for Vinay. His argument: “It is the right of every Indian citizen to voice his/her opinion against what he deems objectionable.” While this is true, expressing one opinion should not equate to gagging someone else’s. He elucidates his point by explaining that much of the objectionable content “deeply offends several religions”. Yet, as a secular country, we not only advocate tolerance but healthy debate. If his argument stands, anyone who does not blindly praise all faiths must be censored and shut down. Scientology, anyone?
The Information Technology (IT) Rules 2011 that were added to the IT Act 2000 are key in this debate; it makes companies responsible for the user content posted on their websites, requiring them to take it down within 36 hours if “any affected person” files a complaint. Ironically, the rules state: “an intermediary is not liable for any content hosted or transmitted through it by a user,” however at the same time, they must remove anything that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory” as well as anything “racially or ethnically objectionable, disparaging” or “otherwise unlawful in any manner.” The rhetoric used in this law is completely ambiguous; there are no parameters set out to explain what any of these terms refer to: what is defined as “blasphemous”? Indeed, the Government is putting in place more stringent measures on the internet than on other media (print or broadcast); while you can write a blasphemous article in a newspaper, you cannot post it online. This misguided act makes little sense considering how much harder it is to regulate content on the internet, particularly on social networking or user-hosted websites.
The now pending case between Vinay Rai and 21 internet moguls firms is set to continue tomorrow, sanctioned to be tried for “serious crimes such as fomenting religious hatred and spreading social discord, offences that could land company directors in prison.” In fact, our new trumpeters of “free speech” fail to recognise that there is no mechanism in place, or one that could be put in place to regulate these sites. A search engine indexes already present content; a social networking site like Facebook only hosts content uploaded by its users, and already has safeguards in place. The complete lack of understanding of how these sites work does not put much faith in our Telecomm’s Minister, a High Court judge and a generally pontificating and often unnecessarily pompous Government.
It’s clear that the entire web censorship issue in India is more to do with a few politicians’ hurt egos coming out of recent corruption scandals, the Hazare movement’s use of social networking, and a desire to infantalise and control a public, already haunted by a colonial past. Web censorship is clearly not limited to the United States and its sister SOPA and PIPA bills, but is spreading across the globe. If the world’s largest democracy cannot allow freedom of expression on the last open medium, then what are we left with? If our Government cannot allow a dialogue between its citizens and their representatives, but expects merely adulation and praise, then what are we left with? The new rules added to the IT Act allow arbitrary censorship and gag our freedom of expression. If we want to distinguish ourselves from our dictatorial neighbor, perhaps our politicians and censorship crusaders need to grow a thicker skin, accept some criticism and realise that some good-natured ribbing is part of a robust democracy. When the State begins to gag its citizens, it’s only a step away from censoring, well, anything.