THERE ARE is a huge controversy after communications and information technology minister Kapil Sibal asked officials of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter to consider screening posts on their social media sites to weed out pornographic and other images or content that would hurt Indian values.
Free speech is a sacred thing in democracy, and Sibal has understandably landed in a soup with his call. The key issue here is not the nature of the content, but the idea of screening that prior to publication, coming from the words of a government minister, smacks of censorship.
Social media is a unique historical phenomenon because it combines publishing as we have known it over the past century with “conversations” of the kind we know in chai shops or drawing rooms to go public worldwide in an instant.
Sibal’s anxiety is understandable but his method is questionable. When corporate audits and stock market trading are primarily subject to self-regulation rather than government intervention, why subject something sacred to intervention at the first stage? The point is that social media companies are more like printers than publishers.
India has obscenity and libel laws that can cover inappropriate Internet content – be it pornography, calculated rumours, falsities or hate speeches. IP addresses can be used to trace abuse.
The government would be better placed if it drafts guidelines to prevent abuse. Better still, most websites have a “Report Abuse” button and this can be evoked to “take down” content that can be seen violating laws. The global nature of the Internet and the fact that India is seen as a cutting edge player in this are such that trust rather than mistrust should be the first call for government.