The democratisation of communication now brings the talk of the street into our homes and offices. As a result we can communicate without making a personal connection. The communications that actually reach our desktops or our smartphones tend towards the lowest common denominator of civility, a level that is unfortunately very low.
Therefore we have an epidemic expansion and exchange of hatred, anger and violence in our social media interactions. All we can say is that the ‘choice’ to subject ourselves to this lowest level of expression has now become a way of life.
Governments and political parties around the world are learning too. But the roots of these problems lie not in the State, but in the combination of private power in the ‘platform companies’ and our own burgeoning need to take advantage of their services, irrespective of our increasing vulnerability to the harmful speech directed at us by strangers.
There is no doubt that words aimed to wound or harm are appropriate subjects of regulation in any legal system.
There are many reasons why expecting public force to control these words will swiftly lead to disappointment. It is equally unsatisfactory to empower private companies to act as global censors in the interests of civility. This will give the private platforms undemocratic power.
Hence there is a need for a broad social dialogue. This is not just to restore systems of government or private censorship, but to protect the safety and civility of public discourse in a world of democratised communications. In India, we do not need the revival of section 66A or any other similar legislation, neither do we need to turn to the online giants such as Google, Facebook or Twitter for censorship. However there is a need for discussing the means by which both the government and these companies can help us protect our cultural environment. That dialogue should be based on the acceptance of some basic principles which are crucial to democracy and our society.
For instance, the providers of services that enhance democracy of communication must also devise measures to involve the communities they create in the moderation and protection of discourse.
Companies must not become censors in substitution for governments. Instead, they must create communities of civility maintenance, platforms for discussion and support people who are subjected to harm. We are building through the net a community as wide as humankind. How we carry our civility into that new space and how we deal with fighting words on the Internet determines whether we are building a better human civilisation.