There are some hopeful signs that the government is finally waking up to the power of social media to connect with mass audiences. The consultation on free speech and imposition of lawful restrictions during crises, organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and involving multiple stakeholders — the government, internet service providers, Facebook, Google, and civil society — is a much-needed confidence building measure. It is encouraging that the Department of Telecommunications acknowledges the power of positive communication through online media to advance the government’s objectives, and forswears the use of censorship. Transparency has thus far taken a back seat when it comes to implementing the Information Technology Act. Only last month, in the wake of violence in Assam and Mumbai, and the rumour mongering that led to an exodus of northeast Indians from the south, some web pages with harmless content were clumsily blocked along with some hosting inflammatory videos, images and writings. What stood out even more was the inability of government to use the very same channels of communication to reassure and clarify. Building capabilities in this area is, therefore, important to manage future crises.
During the London riots of 2011, local government authorities used Facebook and Twitter to counter rumour, provide information, organise community engagement and identify sources of trouble. Some researchers have concluded that such an approach can produce significant positive effects during crisis events, particularly in aiding response and recovery, thanks to the immediacy, mobility and reach of social media. These characteristics of the new communications landscape — including SMS in the Indian context — hold the key to a successful social media strategy for government. Ficci’s suggestion to form crisis councils consisting of telecom companies, ISPs, social media and civil society is worth considering, as it could reach out quickly to influential virtual communities. All these initiatives can have good outcomes, but the unresolved question is that of the boundaries of free speech online. Here, the government must review the working of the IT Act to ensure its conformity with fundamental rights. Only those reasonable restrictions sanctioned under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution can be legitimate ground for imposition of curbs, that too through judicial due process. Unfortunately, not all decisions blocking web pages in the recent past pass muster and some are unacceptable. A clearly laid down, transparent process of law that involves notice, right of reply, judicial test and recourse is imperative for free internet speech.