So Much to Lose

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you have been a witness to the maelstrom of events that accompanied the death of the political leader Bal Thackeray.

Nishant Shah's column was published in the Indian Express on December 2, 2012.

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you have been a witness to the maelstrom of events that accompanied the death of the political leader Bal Thackeray. For me, the brouhaha was elbowed out by the case of the police arresting two women for critiquing the events on Facebook. The person who wondered about the nature of the enforced mourning and the state of our public life, and her friend who “liked” the comment on Facebook, were booked and arrested under charges that can only be considered preposterous.

I will not repeat these arguments because it is needless to say that I am on the side of the women and think of this as yet another manifestation of the stringent measures which are being evolved as an older broadcast way of thinking meets the decentralised realities of digital technologies.

In the midst of this the idea of internet freedom needs to be revisited. The global Press Freedom Index 2011-12 report compiled by Reporters Without Borders, ranks India at 131, or as a “partly free” country, marking us as a country where the notion of internet freedom is not to be taken for granted, and possibly also one where the concept is not properly understood.

Citing various instances from the central government’s plans to censor the social web to the authoritarian crackdown on activists and cultural producers involved in online civic protests, from the traditional media industry’s stronghold over intellectual property regimes to the arrest of individuals for voicing their independent critiques online, the report shows that we not only have an infrastructure deficit (with only 10 per cent of the people in the country connected), but also a huge social and political deficit, which is being exposed by our actions and reactions to the Web.

Take the case of professor Ambikesh Mahapatra dean of the chemistry department of Jadavpur University, who was picked up by the police and lodged in the lock up for almost 40 hours for forwarding an e-mail that contained a cartoon of Trinamool Congress leaders Mamata Banerjee, Mukul Roy and Dinesh Trivedi. He and his housing society co-resident Subrata Sengupta were charged with defamation and outraging the modesty of a woman. While the proceedings are underway with the next date of hearing slated in February, 2013, the Jadavpur university professor says, “Section, 66A of the IT Act is being used for suppression of the freedom of speech. In my opinion, it is being misused by the state government, repeatedly. The section does not empower anyone to arrest those who voice their opinion and never meant to harm anybody’s image. Prompt action is needed to check the misuse of law.”

Likewise, Ravi Srinivasan, a 46-year-old a businessman from Pondicherry, was arrested for tweeting against Karti Chidambaram, son of Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram. His arrest and consequent release has not blunted his spirit. He says, “At the time (of the arrest) I had not heard of Section 66(A). I still cannot fathom why and how a tweet sent out to just 12 people — half of them family and friends — caught the eye of the police. By evening, when I had come home from the police station, my Twitter following had gone up to 1,700. About 15,000 people re-tweeted the statement that got me arrested.”

Given the series of incidents that have marked the last year and the whimsical nature of regulatory injunctions on internet freedom in the country, it might be a good idea for us to reflect on democracy and freedom.

We need to examine the fundamental nature of freedom, and how these attempts at regulating the internet are only a symptom of the systemic failures of enshrining freedom of speech, information, identity and dignity in India. However, internet freedom is often a difficult concept to engage with, because it is one of those phrases that seem to be self-explanatory but without a straightforward explanation. There are three axes which might be useful to unpack the baggage that comes with internet freedom, both for our everyday practices, and our imagined future:

Freedom of: The freedom of the internet is something that is new and needs more attention. We have to stop thinking of the internet as merely a medium or a conduit of information. As the Web becomes inextricably linked with our everyday lives, the internet is no longer just an appendage or an externality. It becomes a reference point through which our social, political and economic practices are shaped. It becomes a defining point through which we draw our meanings of what it is to be a part of the society, to have rights, to be politically aware, to be culturally engaged — to be a human. The freedom of the Net is important because the crackdowns on the Net are an attack on our rights and freedoms. The silencing of a voice on Facebook, might soon gag the voices of people on the streets, creating conditions of silence in the face of violence perpetuated by the powerful.

Freedom to: Freedom to the internet is often confused with access to the internet. While, of course, access is important in our imagination of a just society where everybody is equally connected, freedom is also about creating open and fair societies. If the power of the internet is in creating alternative spaces of expression, deliberation and opinion-making, then the freedom to the internet is about being safe and responsible in these spaces. A society that controls these spaces of public discussion, under the guise of security and public safety, is a society that has given up its faith in freedom.

Freedom for: It is often not clear that when popular technologies of information and communication are regulated and censored, it is not merely the technology that is being controlled. What is being shaped and contained is the way people use them. The freedom for the internet is about the freedom for people. The possibility that Internet Service Providers are being coerced into revealing personal information of users to police states, that intermediaries are being equipped to remove content that they find offensive from the web, and that views expressed on the social media can lead to legal battles by those who have the power but not the acumen to exercise it, all have alarming consequences. There is a need to fight for freedom, not only for the defence of technology but also for the defence of the rights that we cherish that risk being eroded.

The case of these Facebook arrests is not new. It has happened before and it will continue happening as immature governments are unable to cope with the real voices of representational democracy. These cases sometimes get naturalised because they get repeated, and even without our knowledge, can start creating a life of fear, where we internalise the regulatory system, not voicing our opinions and ideas for fear of persecution. And so, whether you agree with their politics or not, whether you endorse the viewpoints of the people who are under arrest, whether you feel implicated or not in this case, we have to realise that even if we might not agree with somebody’s viewpoint, we must defend their right to have that particular viewpoint. Anything else, and tomorrow, when you want to say something against powers of oppression, you might find yourself alone, as your voice gets heard only by those who will find creative ways of silencing you.

— With inputs from Gopu Mohan, Madhuparna Das and V Shoba