Spy in the Web

The government’s proposed pre-censorship rules undermine the intelligence of an online user and endanger democracy.
Spy in the Web

Censorship laws have always been very cautious of what constitutes offensive content

Kapil Sibal’s recent remarks demanding that private social media companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook remove "objectionable" content from their social networks has created a lot of furore. It should not come as a surprise to us that just like any other platform of publication and content creation, several rules and regulations already regulate online content while still respecting our constitutional right for freedom of speech and expression in India.

From terms of services of the different web 2.0 products that seek to moderate "offensive" or "harmful" material to strictly defined punishable offences as defined in the Information Technologies Act, framed by the Government of India, there are various ways by which material that might incite violence, hatred or pain is systemically removed from the digital space. 

Largely, this happens silently. Unless you are particularly keen on certain spurious websites, you wouldn’t even realise that there is a list of blacklisted websites that remain inaccessible to us in India. Once in a while, we realise the regulatory nature of state censorship when certain actions come to light. In 2006, the Indian government blocked Blogspot, the popular blogging platform, because they had detected "anti-national" activities by certain groups using the blog.

More recently, India’s first home-grown erotic comic series Savita Bhabhi was banned and taken off its Indian servers, without realising that in the era of cloud-computing, the comic still remains available through different containers and spaces. In both these cases, while one might be able to provide a critique of the Indian government’s attempts at censoring and regulating information, there is reasonable sympathy to the idea that some control on information is possibly a good thing. 

It is in the very nature of information to be filtered. I am sure everybody will agree that censoring, controlling and regulating information of certain kinds — involving child pornography, calls for violence and vandalism aimed at insulting and offending vulnerable sections of the society — is probably in the interest of a healthier information society. And hence, one nods one’s head, rather grudgingly at some of the censorship laws (print, TV, internet, et al) and accepts that we need them, at least in principle, if not in execution.

However, what Sibal is asking for is not in the same vein. Censorship laws have always been very cautious of what constitutes "offensive" content and have relied both on the larger opinions of the community as well as the informed expertise of legal bodies to censor information. More often than not, an act of censorship is implemented when certain sections of the society, in their interaction with certain information, find it offensive or insulting and ask for a block. Pre-emptive censorship, the kinds performed by the Central Board of Film Certification, is in service of existing legal infrastructure around production and distribution of information.

Protective guidelines for censoring information, as was recently seen in the Broadcast Editors’ Association’s mandate around not intruding into the privacy of the Bachchan baby and the mother, during the birth of the child, are demonstrably for the protection of a person’s private life.

Sibal’s new calls for censorship against material “that would offend any human being” is separate from all these instances in three ways. First, while Sibal is an important political figure in this country, he is not the lord of information production. Using the power of his office to call for taking down of content that he found offensive (fortunately it did not incite him to violence and moral decrepitude) is undemocratic and possibly extra-legal (as in not within the boundaries of law, but who will bell the cat?). 

To ask private companies and use his influence to bully them into curtailing the constitutionally provided freedom of speech and expression is in bad taste. There is enough regulation that could be invoked to seek arbitration between Sibal’s opinion and somebody else’s about how Sonia Gandhi should be represented online.

Second, Sibal might pretend that he is only asking for censorship of online content the way in which we have for other media, but that is a fallacy. What he is advocating is an ethos of pre-censorship, where, even before the material becomes public, it is screened through human agents who, through some divine right would know the right from wrong — read as what the powers to be want and don’t. To override existing regulation and ask for this extra layer of human scrutiny of all information being produced online is the equivalent of certain unnamed people in Mumbai, who, when Mani Ratnam was about to release his film Bombay, asked for a private screening of the film and then recommended some friendly cuts in it.

Third, is perhaps, and I write this with regret, Sibal has undermined the critical intelligence and engagement of the social media’s ardent users. He has fallen into the trap of suggesting that impressionable minds will be easily corrupted if they are introduced to "undesirable" information online, the same information that will apparently not drive human pre-screeners to prurient activities because they will be protected by the mantle of government sanction. Instead of drawing upon the wisdom of crowds, which invites communities and people to flag information that they find offensive and asks for independent arbitration, he has asked for an undemocratic and unconstitutional call for censorship which threatens the very structures of political protest, resistance and dialogue in the country.

If such draconian measures are going to be carried through, we might soon regress to a dystopia where all information is censored, filtered and reshaped only to suit the interests of those in power.

Nishant Shah, Director-Research wrote this article for the Indian Express. It was published on December 18, 2011. The original can be read here