A few days ago, a friend and a fellow journalist's Twitter account along with few others was haphazardly blocked by the Indian government in an apparent overnight swoop. The government claimed that some 300 webpages, including blogposts and videos, played an instrumental role in spreading malicious and inflammatory content to heighten ethnic tensions between the Muslims and people from the Northeast. On further scrutiny, it appears that the government has also used this opportunity to silence some of its critics and satirists on social media. Or well, at least send a terse message across to watch out.
In its defence, the government said the Orwellian crackdown was a matter of national security to curb the medium from fuelling rumours and panic, leading to an internal security crisis such as the mass exodus of people from the Northeast in states like Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in recent weeks. "We are only taking strict action against those accounts which are causing damage or spreading rumours... There is no censorship at all. We decided on taking action because there were pictures of Myanmar online etc, which were disturbing the atmosphere here in India," noted the ministry of home affairs statement. But the government's clumsy handling of the issue has exposed an underlining intent of wanting to carry out personal vendettas under the umbrella of national crisis. There are still, however, unanswered questions that linger: did the government know what it was doing when it demanded that certain websites be blocked, or was it merely testing water for something bigger yet to come?
The recent hullabaloo of internal security has not only cast aspersions once again on how solid India's internet freedom is, but whether the government is looking for an opportunity to clamp down on what it's been mulling to do for a while now. In December last year, top officials of online giants such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook were summoned by the communications and information technology minister Kapil Sibal, who requested them to prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online. Word got out, Sibal was miffed with the ‘insensitive' content being uploaded on social media to poke fun at his party bosses and colleagues, even though he said it was about security issues. His so-called meeting also sparked hue and cry on the web and media that the government was planning to censor the internet, as it's doing now. But after hitting out against social media again, the minister recently acknowledged that to exercise control on Twitter and such sites is difficult as its jurisdiction and server fall outside the ambit of India, but maintained that a ‘permanent' solution must be sought. Sibal didn't clarify, though, whether he meant the freedom we assume on the web is going to be threatened or modified as soon as the government finds a way out.
On the other hand, Twitter on Friday finally caved in to government's repeated demands and blocked several handles spoofing the Prime Minister's account after it was threatened with severe consequences. Sixteen other such handles, including my friend's account — who can only be held culpable for exhibiting an inscrutable wit and nothing else — are also still up in the air whether they will be blocked permanently or not. Ironically enough, a day after minister of state for communications and IT Milind Deora used the microblogging website to explain the government's intent in blocking some sites, his own account was ‘suspended' for a day to be ‘verified' while another one resembling his handle remained active. It doesn't really come as a big surprise that the government may not have entirely known what it was doing, or who was calling the shots. While those responsible for fanning hate and instigating war among religious communities must be brought to knees, as our governing authorities rightly believe, to set an example to future trouble-makers, we must do so by not giving out hints that we're impinging on those who are not afraid to speak their minds.
Increasingly so, I find, we are becoming an intolerant society, one that's losing its sense of humour and irony. Let us not forget who we are or our pride, freedom and culture; let us not vent our frustrations and inadequacies against the uneducated and politically weak. At the same time, we must bear in mind that if we are to cherish this freedom of expression, we must also assess its hypersensitivity and impact. An update on Twitter, stripped of its sarcasm and tone, can spread in lightning alacrity, stirring dangerous, and lasting consequences.
One does not know in days to come how India's internet policy will take shape, but it is evident enough that now is the time to start worrying. By acting in haste, the government has set a new precedent on what it can do if there ever comes a time when a national emergency has to be imposed in the digital age.
Having topped the 100 million mark last year, India's web users are believed to overtake the US' in the next few years. If we don't raise our voice now, we may have to hold our silence for good.