The orders issued by the Ministry of Communication and IT to block more than 300 items on the Internet, including Twitter handles, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, blogposts, pages of certain websites, and in some cases entire websites, tell a revealing story of a government that has simply not applied its mind to the issue of how to deal with hate speech, both cyber and traditional. There can be no argument against taking down material that can incite violence, and some of the targeted content rightly needed to be blocked. But this should have been done transparently, with judicial oversight. In the present case, it is not clear what laws have been invoked to block the items specified in the four orders issued from August 18 to 21. Certainly, the orders themselves do not make reference to any law. As pointed out by the Centre for Internet and Society (http://cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/analysing-blocked-sites-riots-communalism), if the government had acted under the Information Technology Act, the host servers of the affected sites should have been notified and given 48 hours to respond under the IT Rules of 2009; and if it used the emergency provision in the Rules, which are themselves opaque, the orders should have come up before an ‘examination of request’ committee within 48 hours. Another serious problem is that the orders do not mention the duration of the blocks.
Especially disturbing is the decision to block the Twitter handles of right-wing agitators and one pro-Hindutva journalist. Bad taste, warped logic and chauvinist comment do not, by themselves, add up to hate speech or criminal incitement. If an individual is really spreading hate through speech, print or the Internet, let the government proceed against him or her under the Indian Penal Code — where the courts will have the final word — rather than indulging in censorship that is pre-emptive and arbitrary. And mindless too: among the sites blocked is an anti-hate page on a Pakistani website which was one of the first to expose how fake photographs had been used to whip up Islamist passion on the Rakhine clashes in Myanmar. A London School of Economics-Guardian study of the 2011 London riots documents how Twitter was used extensively in a positive way, to organise community clean-up operations after the riots. On the other hand, their analysis of 2.5 million tweets showed, the response to messages inciting riots was ‘overwhelmingly negative’. The lesson from this is that it is possible to counter hate on social media through the same platform. This is really what the government should be doing, instead of the Sisyphean task of trying to block noxious content that will always find other ways of bubbling to the surface.