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The state. And the rage of the cyber demon

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 03, 2012 11:03 AM
The Internet might be a Pandora’s box. But should the government be wasting time regulating the cacophony?

Shougat Dasgupta's article was published in Tehelka, Vol 9, Issue 36, Dated September 8, 2012. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

SOME YEARS ago a cartoon was doing the rounds that caught in a few sharp strokes the selfimportance and self-righteousness of the Internet warrior. A man sits hunched at his computer, the keyboard lit with his fervour. Not looking away from the screen, he has a terse, impatient exchange with his partner off-panel: ‘Are you coming to bed?’ ‘I can’t. This is important.’ ‘What?’ ‘Someone is wrong on the Internet.’ It is the anonymous exchange that gives cyber debates their peculiar animus; that anonymity coupled with the low stakes, as is famously said of academic politics, is what makes the sniping so bitter and vicious. The complaints about social media like Twitter or the comment sections on blogs have mostly centred on the incivility of the discourse, on ‘trolls’ too eager to throw rotting vegetables at journalists, politicians, celebrities unused to such irreverence. But action taken by the government in the last fortnight to block content from over 300 websites and a dozen Twitter accounts imputes a far more vitiating effect on society than the mere puncturing of already overinflated egos.

Kapil Sibal, Minister for Communications & Information Technology, has said in interviews that the government’s intent was to “protect the victims” from these “mischievous acts happening through these sites and blogs”. There is, by now, little doubt that the threats and fake pictures of slain Muslims spread through mobile phones and social media, “disseminating misinformation” in the minister’s phrase, helped exacerbate tensions and fears. There is equally little doubt that what action the government took was both late and clumsy: blocking blogs that debunked the rumours and morphed images that the government held responsible for causing panic; blocking web pages of international news organisations such as The Telegraph and Al-Jazeera; blocking Twitter accounts of journalists, the government’s political opponents, accounts parodying the prime minister, even people who tweeted mostly about information technology and cricket. Like a giant in clown shoes chasing a sprite, the government has looked lumbering and foolish, led a merry dance by light-footed ‘netizens’, while the rest of us pointed and laughed.

Can the government’s actions be at all justified? Appearing on NDTV’s ‘We the People’, R Chandrashekhar, Secretary, Department of Information Technology, argued that “once a law enforcement agency has made an assessment you act first and then make corrections as you go along”. In essence, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, which along with concern for ‘national security’ is trotted out by every democratic government accused of ignoring civil liberties. Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari, on the same programme, claimed that the “mandate of section 69a of the Information Technology Act and the rules with regard to safeguards and blocking is fairly clear and rule 9 allows the government, if it thinks that there’s an expedient situation in order to protect the sovereignty of the State or public order, to go ahead with this blocking on an interim basis”.

We will discuss the section being referred to and the 2011 guidelines for intermediaries later but for now let’s accept the government’s argument that it acted in the face of a clear and present danger, to borrow from Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous 19th-century US Supreme Court Justice. Kharan Thapar, citing another of Holmes’s shopworn phrases, wrote that “[ j]ust as it’s not acceptable to shout fire in a crowded cinema hall for the fun of it, it cannot be permitted to deliberately frighten helpless innocent people who, for whatever reason, believe you and panic”. Thapar is making the point that free speech is not without its responsibilities. He does so, however, using a long discredited cliché and compounds this error with condescension, refusing to grant people (“helpless”, “innocent”, like babies) their full agency. Besides, the government only acted from 18 August to limit text messaging, already months after initial images of supposed Burmese atrocities against Muslims had been widely circulated to stir anger. It also chose to block webpages and Twitter handles, some for spurious, even mystifying reasons. The result has been embarrassment. Acting arbitrarily in the name of communal harmony to prevent damage after terrible damage has already been done, does little to convince the people you are supposedly protecting that you have the situation in hand.

The government has left itself open to being serially lectured about free speech by the US government, by journalists (particularly Kanchan Gupta, whose apparently blocked Twitter account has made him a patron saint of free speech), by hysterical twitterers (ok, ‘tweeple’) drawing an entirely ridiculous parallel to the Emergency, and most egregiously by Narendra Modi. Presumably, Modi, by blackening his display picture was not commenting on the black irony of a man who bans books mourning constraints on freedom of speech. Pranesh Prakash of the Bengaluru-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a trenchant critic of the government’s recent blocks (social media not coal) and the “horrendously drafted” legislation that permits the leeway for such indiscriminate action, says that “people [were] losing a sense of reality”.

NONE OF this is to say that the government, in its haste, acted with reason. Certainly, it has since last year been working assiduously to exert at least some control over online content. The rules from April last year updating sections of the Information Technology Act, 2000, requires “due diligence” from companies like Twitter, or Facebook, to not “host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any information that… is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever…” Disparaging? Encouraging gambling? Well, gambling, at least in casinos, is lawful in Goa and Sikkim. No wonder Kapil Sibal felt he was on firm legal ground when he complained in December about “derogatory pictures” of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh that the government had culled from Facebook accounts.

Prakash, of the CIS, describes the Information Technology Act, particularly sections 69a and 66 as “having issues and being badly worded”. The powers it gives the government are too intrusive and that the prison sentences for offenders “are greater than those for death by negligence”. What he finds most troubling is how little transparency exists around issues of censorship; how, for instance, there is no easily accessible central list of banned books. “How,” he asks, “are people even supposed to know if their website or Twitter account is blocked if the government won’t issue proper notices and lists?” Our democratically elected government appears fond of the aristocratic maxim to never contradict, never explain, never apologise, as if hauteur and bluster are adequate substitutes for communication and we are subjects rather than citizens.

Seen in isolation, the blocking of websites and rationing of text messages is just a comical bungle by an unwieldy, Luddite administration. In the context of the last 12 months though, the government’s recent actions are a logical extension of its drive to bring the Internet to heel. The unregulated nature of the Internet is a particular bugbear of this government. It had already made a proposal to the United Nations in October last year, at the 66th session of the General Assembly, for the institution of a Committee for Internet- Related Policies. This 50-nation body would be tasked not to control the Internet, “or allow Governments to have the last word in regulating the Internet, but to make sure that the Internet is governed not unilaterally, but in an open, democratic, inclusive and participatory manner, with the participation of all stakeholders”. For all the incompetence the government has displayed, both most recently and in previous attempts to censor Internet content, it asks an important question about the future of Internet regulation, about the need for multilateral debate and international consensus.

TEHELKA, as cyber chatter about the blocked sites grew increasingly frenzied, asked its online readers to define the forum provided by social media. Most agreed that Twitter, for instance, was a public space, a place to give vent to private thoughts publicly with, if wanted or needed, the comfort of anonymity. The metaphor used is often that of a public square or town hall. I’ve always thought of Twitter as a carnival — a space, as defined by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, where the existing social order is overturned, where social pieties are profaned. Twitter, like carnival, appeared to me an exhilarating space. This is utterly naïve. The fact is that Twitter is not a public space, it is privately owned and its investors are in the business of revenue generation and profit. This means Twitter’s terms of service are subject to change, as is its cooperation with governments over the private information it controls and owns.

Rahul Bose, the actor, told me in a conversation about social media that he thinks individual freedom is increasingly an “illusion”, that the very idea has become “laughable”. We live our lives, particularly our online lives, under the unblinking gaze of government: “You don’t need a close circuit camera at Flora Fountain to know you’re being watched, that every piece of information is on a file somewhere.” (This is probably not quite true of our dozy government.) It is indisputable that private entities such as Facebook and Twitter hold enormous amounts of information about individuals. In that light, surely, the Indian government is correct about the need for multilateral oversight of a system currently beholden in significant ways to the United States. ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, for instance, still makes only a token gesture at global participation and any question of greater United Nations involvement is generally met with US suspicion.

Arguably, the Indian government doesn’t go far enough in its call for greater inclusivity in the governance of the Internet. The academic Jeremy Malcolm, an influential figure in discussions about Internet governance, has written that the World Summit on the Information Society has “established at the level of principle that governance of the Internet should be a transparent, democratic and multilateral process, with the participation of governments, private sector, civil society and international organisations, in their respective roles”. More immediate, perhaps, is the question of how a democratic country, committed to free speech, should regard social media.

This is not a discussion confined to India. During the August 2012 London riots, David Cameron threatened to ban people suspected of planning criminal activity from using Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messenger. In words similar to those used by Sibal, Cameron spoke about reminding these companies of their responsibilities. In an interview with TEHELKA, Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh held close to the party line, insisting that “anything that incites violence is problematic, as is anything that is factually incorrect, and must be removed”. He envisages a future where online exchanges are governed by the same rules as public life, governed by similar cultural codes and basic civility. This is, it has to be said, an optimistic view of public life.

There are, as discussed earlier, as many different ways to see online exchanges as there are Internet users. The Internet’s shapelessness, its Moby Dick-like vast blankness, makes it impossible to apply the same standards to conversation on Twitter or Facebook, even if it is in print and in public, as you might apply to a magazine article. Pranesh Prakash points out that “while some people may see Twitter as akin to friends talking in the pub, others use the service as a bulletin board”. When I propose to Prakash the idea of an ombudsman to monitor online dialogue in the same way an independent press commission might monitor newspaper reports, he makes a cogent rebuttal: “There is no ombudsman for regular speech, or to outline what you can or cannot say from a podium. Besides, there are laws that deal with defamation, slander and unless there is a requirement for an extra-legal authority I cannot see the need for an ombudsman.”

Much of the debate over the last couple of weeks has devolved, as so much debate in all our media, mainstream or online, does, into grandstanding — in this instance about ‘freedom of speech’ versus the national security imperative. This is to miss the woods for the trees. For all its heavy-handedness, the Indian government is correct to be concerned about oversight of the Internet and correct that not enough stakeholders are currently involved in its governance. Cant about freedom of speech cannot change the fact that the government is also correct that in a precariously held together democracy comprising various, widely different cultures and religions, certain standards of respectful speech are necessary. Of course, we can and should argue those standards and there needs to be a national conversation about the strictures of Internet legislation in India. Still, let us not pretend that the mob mentality of political discourse on the Internet is not a cause for worry and is not, as are all mobs, subject to manipulation.

With inputs from Ajachi Chakrabarti.
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.

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