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Don’t be a control freak

The onus of controlling what we do on the internet lies on us, not on the State. Nikhil Pahwa writes.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2012 13:42 IST

In his article For a fine balance (January 6), Vikram Sood suggests that we must learn to give up some of our freedoms to preserve our liberty and independence, and a balance needs to be struck between the need for security and the desire for freedom.

Like the Indian government, Sood puts the onus of addressing obnoxious and vituperative comments on social media services like Facebook and Twitter. He ignores the fact that these are not publishers but mere platforms under the Information Technology Act, 2000. Under the Act, these platforms are recognised as intermediaries and under the IT rules they are required to remove only the content that people complain against.

Enforcing that mechanism is different from asking any platform to prevent certain kind of statements from being made or imagery from being shared, given that it will mean monitoring and censoring billions of messages. As a society, we have to realise that the onus of controlling what we see, read and hear on the internet, and whether it impacts us or not, lies on us. We can’t expect a government to act like a nanny.

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, invoking ‘national security’ and ‘law and order problems’ are among his more popular tactics. That’s exactly what governments tend to do. The IT Rules define in vague terms the conditions under which content should be removed from the internet by intermediaries. They state that anything that is “grossly harmful”, “obscene”, “disparaging”, “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation” must be removed on request. The problem is that these conditions are open to multiple interpretations.

Sood also stresses on the need for the governments to manage media, pointing out that mainstream media is beyond the reach of the insurgent or the dissident, but the internet democratises media. In 2011, we witnessed many protests against governments whose policies are far removed from people’s needs. In India, Facebook and Twitter were tools of the India Against Corruption campaign. At the core of every protest, one must differentiate between the nation and the government. Recent protests have highlighted that the interests of a nation may not be the same as those of its government. Therefore, to address information disintermediation, governments are trying to monitor, identify and block information.

Given that there are no strong privacy laws, the danger lies in the governments’ altering these methods to change the balance of power in their favour. With phone calls, SMS, GPRS location etc being monitored, and given the historical context of call recordings being selectively leaked to the Press, people should be worried about their governments using data to manipulate mainstream media, public perception and even the electoral process. We can only hope that governments won’t misuse the digital tools which are at their disposal.

( Nikhil Pahwa is founder and editor of the digital news and analysis site MediaNama.com )

The views expressed by the author are personal