Or why it's impossible to clean up the internet.

In 2003, Barbara Streisand, the American entertainer known primarily as being the most famous singer most Indians don't know anything about, attempted to sue a photographer for Pictopia.com for $50 million. In keeping with the American tradition of an inverse relationship between claim amounts and actual relevance of a case, Streisand was suing to get a photograph of her atrociously opulent beach-side mansion in Malibu, California, removed from the internet. What transpired is something Streisand and Kapil Sibal will never understand. 

It's hard to remove anything from the internet. In the Streisand case, the publicity from the case simply resulted in more and more sites publishing that offending photo till it went viral. Unlike real-world objects that cannot be copied quickly and cheaply (although China is getting there quite quickly), digital objects require no more than a couple of mouse clicks. In a process similar to how small, unusable reflective surfaces are circulated widely among women during Navarathri season, the internet is rapidly able to “mirror” any content that is in imminent danger of being removed from one site.

In ancient Rome, when the Senate didn't like someone, they had them executed. If they were particularly peeved, they had them publicly executed, but if they were seething with rage against someone, they issued a Damnatio Memoriae (literally, condemnation of memory) edict and the minions of government were then required to physically remove this offending person's name from every where, from his birth records and his haircutting saloon visits to his Roman army records. This was well and truly an erasure from history.

In 1940, Stalin had his commissar Nikolai Yezhov executed presumably for some egregious offence like referring to his boss using his birth name (Dzhugashvili)and even had him removed from official photographs. Back in ancient Rome, Damnation Memoriae involved, for most part, a chisel and a hammer. The Yezhov erasure is, more than anything else, a landmark in photo editing in an era without Photoshop. But as photos become digital and printed text goes ASCII, attempting Damnation Memoriae today is slightly harder than trying to erase the memory of P James from the city of Chennai.

Clearly, our stand-in telecom minister hasn't seen the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.The internet and hate speech are like Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in that movie. Even if you pay companies to have  content removed, their romantic love will always triumph in the end.

What most policymakers do not understand about social media is that a substantial proportion of all really offensive content is quite unpopular and stays out of sight. If it's popular, it's quite likely not the sort of thing you should be thinking of censoring. It's only when politicians try to censor that really crappy content ends up becoming popular. The internet takes its crap quite seriously.

You don't like a Facebook page dedicated to besmirching the image of our dear leaders? Well, Barbara Streisand “likes” it and we will all retweet it. If you get that page removed, the web will move the content to servers hosted in countries who take a dim view of internet censorship.

I call it the mother-in-law rule. The moment you think you've worked real hard and removed every dirty spot in the house, your mother-in-law will find one you've missed.


MetroplusJune 28, 2012