Click of protest

The Internet in India is again at a crossroads with censorship popping up its dreadful head on this medium too. Netizens are up in arms against the infringement on their right to have an opinion, finds Nikhil Varma

Published - December 12, 2011 06:58 pm IST

VOICES GAGGED Protests against minister Kapil Sibal’s statements have flooded all spaces — online and real time Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

VOICES GAGGED Protests against minister Kapil Sibal’s statements have flooded all spaces — online and real time Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Last week, a report in the New York Times claimed that India's Union HRD, IT and Telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal met senior functionaries of websites such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Yahoo and asked them to evolve a mechanism to filter “inflammatory” and “defamatory” content that could create social tension. He talked about pictures and videos having morphed images of popular leaders and the use of material that could hurt people's religious sentiments.

Sibal called a press conference soon after the story went public in India and said, “These websites have been told to be more vigilant towards such content and ensure that such objectionable matter is not used on the Internet. They have been asked to inform the government of such controversial matter so that immediate remedial measures could be taken.”

The report has the online community up in arms against what they see is an infringement on the freedom of Internet and goes against the basic tenets of free speech guaranteed by the constitution. The netizens vented their fury at the government and Sibal on the social media platforms. Nitesh Shanker, a software professional who spends nearly six hours on these sites says, “The government does not realise that the Internet is too vast to be policed. The sheer volume of online data emerging every minute makes it impossible for anyone to keep tabs. It can be done only if you shut down the Internet.”

Geeta Ramdas, a 27-year-old dental student is in partial agreement with Sibal. “Of late, the amount of hate speech and indecent content on social media sites has increased a great deal. These pages and posts just spread hatred among communities and may result in riots. Though I do not have many followers on Twitter, I have often been attacked by complete strangers on these sites.” However, she adds, “Government control/pre-screening of objectionable content is not the way to go about it. It is a very complex issue and half steps will not solve anything.”

Many felt that the government was throttling the power of the social media, which had helped fan the embers of the revolutions that unfolded in Egypt and Libya. “I think that the government was concerned over the impact of the social media during the Anna movement and decided that a watchdog policy was needed to curb the influence of social media on politics,” says Sanjiv Nair, a freelance writer.

He adds, “As a freelancer, I take a lot of information from these sites, as it lets me gauge the popular mood about elements of popular culture. If you begin to censor information, the Internet will be without a voice. Unlike the print and broadcast media, I do not think that information online can be censored.”

Though the Union HRD minister has clarified that no pre-screening of content will be undertaken, the online community is still wary of any move that seeks to remove content from the Internet.

Ashok, a 28 year old, who works in a NGO, says, “Where would you draw a line between a joke and offensive material? There is a very thin line between humour and libel and the government will find itself in a mess. The government should get back to their primary task, of governing the country instead of trying to police the World Wide Web.” He adds, “Almost all social media sites have report abuse buttons that ensure that libellous or defamatory information cannot be put up. The government is making an attempt to muzzle public opinion.”

However, there are also those, who feel that Internet trolls must be regulated and must not be allowed to spread false information.

An anonymous blogger says, “During Sonia Gandhi's operation, rumours about her illness were magnified and the language used by many of those on Twitter and such sites were horrific, to say the least. I feel that some regulations must be put in place, else it will be just a place for frustrated people to vent their anger.”

As the controversy rages and comparisons are being made of the world's largest democracy to China and North Korea, where Internet censorship is a norm, it remains to be seen how the government manages to put its proposals into practice.

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