Looking back at 2011, we could describe it as a great year for democracy — both on and offline. While the Arab Spring brought down totalitarian regimes, both in India and the US, anti-government protesters stood up for economic justice. In both instances, social media played a major role, with sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress and Blogspot helping people rally.
Now, as the year draws to a close, it seems Internet democracy is under threat in India, and it is important to recognise the importance of social media — which is the best thing that happened to democracy in India since the Right To Information Act — and then make sure that its vagaries are not used to justify censorship of some kind.
Communications and IT minister Kapil Sibal suggested that offensive content may be "pre-screened" by authorities to stop content that promote obscenity or religious hatred before denying any such more. And then, last week, a Delhi court ordered 22 social media site companies to remove all "anti-religious" and "anti-social" content.
But even more ominous are the IT (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011 notified by the government last April.
Software Freedom Law Center (SLFC), an advocacy group, says the rules have sweeping criteria that can result in ambiguous and broad interpretation to crack down on user-generated content on social media. "The crux of the rules is that any person aggrieved by any content on the Internet can ask the intermediaries to take down such content," it says in a note — and this needs to be done within 36 hours, with no redressal mechanism.
The rules have been tabled in parliament, and it is for democracy lovers to ensure that it does not result in a "private censoring mechanism" as SLFC says.
Is the IT Ministry the right one to govern social media? With this becoming an extension of media, perhaps the Information & Broadcasting Ministry needs to step in.
Social media firms are only computer hosts. They cannot and should not be held responsible for everything. We need to figure out a way for that.
I would prefer a "highway patrol" style of regulation where unlawful content is monitored by authorities and taken down with transparent rules for redressal (like traffic violations) rather than a "private security check" system where everybody and everything comes for painful screening.
The motives of censorship of any kind should always be questioned.