Like many of you, who have views on major issues — economic or political, domestic or global, governance or corruption, faith or reason — I too am a victim of a hate-spewing, label-mongering, obscenity-chewing, defamation-laced group of people, loud in their rants, and with perhaps nothing better to do. This, please note, is different from presenting a cogent argument that is backed by reason, facts, numbers, logic — a discourse I enjoy indulging in.
There is just one reason why they are able to get away with anything, from defamation and sedition to inducing hate — anonymity. By wearing the armour of anonymity that the online medium in general and social networking sites in particular offer, they are able to shoot to hurt, cause maximum impact and then disappear — an act you can't replicate in the real world.
Companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook that have set up this virtual infrastructure are reluctant to close accounts. When they do, it is selectively, leading to an altogether different set of allegations. When they do not, governments squeeze them, as the Indian government did when it forced Twitter to close the accounts of people who were anonymously spewing hatred against communities but ended up shutting down valid and identifiable people who were simply critiquing the government.
On their part, even governments are unable to bring these hostiles to book. I use the word with care. Being anonymous is fine as long as your anonymity is not hurting anyone. But when you cross that line of decency, you lose your licence to anonymity. To illustrate, if you talk about a corrupt minister over dinner, it's fine, you can speak your mind. But the moment you allege corruption publically, say on Twitter or on a blog, you’re no longer talking in private space. You’re public.
At the Hindustan Times’ digital literacy conclave last week, minister of state for information technology Sachin Pilot said that the government proposes to have one digitally literate person in every household. Ironically, while he was speaking about empowerment, the clampdown on Twitter was on.
Along with digital literacy — a tool that can help us leapfrog a generation or two in economic development, particularly through education and paperwork management — will come restrictions. And in strange ways. So, the world’s largest democracy India has joined hands with the world’s largest single-party system China to petition the United Nations (UN) to bring social networking companies like Facebook and Twitter under the control of sovereigns.
While dictators whose regimes were overthrown —Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — would have liked these restrictions a year or two ago, this move could also give excessive powers to governments. If this plan does go through, India will have to draft its domestic guidelines with great care. Much of this is already in place — even today, you and your venom can be tracked down through IP addresses, phones and signals.
Anonymity has its advantages — it allows the otherwise shy or the psychologically introverted to get their voice heard. But the moment you transform this anonymity into a weapon to cause hurt, society will not allow it to sustain for too long. And like the layers of security searches at airports that have raised the cost of doing business for the rest of us simply because a handful of terrorists used aircraft to blow the Twin Towers, this anonymity, if pushed beyond a point, will result in a cost.
Let’s zoom out and watch ourselves in the real world. We seek transparency from the government in governance, we want to know the wealth of politicians when they stand for elections, we expect disclosures from companies wanting to take money from the public. The right to information empowers us to question the littlest of things from bureaucrats and officials. So, why not transplant this virtue on ourselves in the virtual world?
Tailpiece: For the past few days I have grappled with the tenuous issue of putting curbs on social media and more broadly on free speech and its impact on economic development. The answer: there is zero correlation between the two. Among countries without free speech, for every China that is the economic miracle of the last three decades, there is a North Korea. Among nations with free speech through the broader institution of being democracies, for every US there is a Pakistan. So much for my toil.