Internet policing, copyright violations and offending speech on the Web are all determined by what we call 'caste'.

Very often court cases regarding internet governance, copyright violation, offending speech written online are settled by trying to understand where certain information comes from. The field of intellectual property for instance concerns itself with all sorts of information and data, all the way down to the bits and bytes.

When trying to find out whether a person should be detained for writing something on Facebook or if another should be fined for downloading illegal material – figuring out a few intangible properties of this data becomes sine qua non. “Who has created this data? Where did the bits come from? Where is it going? Are they copies of other bits?”

While some of these questions are possibly answerable via technical means, there is an intangible quality to this data that cannot be captured by the bits themselves. Let’s call it caste, because why not? Our nation seems obsessed with caste, and it turns out that this quality behaves a lot like the caste-coded politics of our country.

Natural universe

Data does not naturally have caste. Caste in that sense is not part of the natural order of things. The defining characteristic of why it is unnatural is that one cannot merely look at data and decide what caste it is. An amusing example of this ‘caste-coded’ data presented itself recently. A young Mumbai woman was arrested for posting a status that offended the followers of the late Bal Thackeray. It went something like this -

“.. one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.”

The Hindu reproduced the offending parts as a headline for the story on November 19th on its front page – ‘Mumbai shuts down due to fear and not respect’. It would appear, on the surface, simplistic if one asked the question: Why arrest the girls and not the editor of The Hindu? Casting aside explanations such as The Hindu is protected as a media entity, it becomes apparent that the authorities saw fit to assign a certain caste to the status posted by the girls and none at all (or an altogether different one) for The Hindu’s headline. This effectively claims despite the two statuses being the same, bit-for-bit,—they were different. The difference was the caste of the bits.

Now, the above paragraph is a little bit of nonsense to software programmers or anyone with a basic knowledge of mathematics. Given that the words and therefore the data is identical, there is no meaningful way to prove that the status posted by the woman and that posted by The Hindu are different. There’s no way to test its differences, because in that way humans and computers are caste-blind. The law isn’t, however.

Discrimination of another kind

The law and online law enforcement requires this caste-differentiation. When it comes to copyright violation, they need to know where the offending data came from and what caste is it. Basically, whether it is the young Mumbai woman’s caste or that of The Hindus.

The problem with legislators and lawyers in treating caste as an inherent function of the data that citizens produce is that this caste-quality doesn’t actually exist. This type of caste-differentiated search would be remotely acceptable if the data itself were tied to physical objects. For instance, it is possible to look at a physical book and reasonably determine whether it is authentic or a pirated copy purchased for Rs.20. It is possible to peep at a written letter and determine through forensic analysis whether the note was written by a particular citizen.

When things move to the digital realm, it is almost determining caste by examination ceases to exist. It is not possible to determine whether a particular post on Facebook was put up by a particular citizen –or whether the account was hacked or posted by a member of the family as a jest. Caste-sniffing by online authorities will only become more difficult, if Facebook and other social networks officially allow users to conduct themselves online under a pseudonym – as a recent German privacy regulator has ordered Facebook to allow.

A smorgasbord of caste, law, Section 66 A, and the inability of technology to recognize caste has led us to our present situation. It is theoretically impossible for legislators to recognize their dream of being able to enforce caste on the Internet and in our computers.

On the part of netizens and programmers, we should be quicker to compromise as well as educate educate legislators on this point, for the convenience of caste has devastating consequences. Today for example, the Goondas Act in Tamil Nadu was tweaked so that it now includes cyber-crime.

“Ms. Jayalalithaa also announced that a single offence “which has the propensity to disturb public order” was enough for detention under the provisions of the Act.”

If caste is incorrectly assigned, as it too often is, netizens are facing the very real danger of being detained. The punishment dealt, through the various Acts, has been increasing in number with not enough debate on whether the caste-coloured techniques that lead up to it are sound.