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Sense and censorship

Salman Rushdie once pointed out that everything he does appears to be controversial, even if it's just crossing the street. He's been seen hailing a cab off the street in New York, but Jaipur was a fare too far. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2012 23:40 IST

Salman Rushdie once pointed out that everything he does appears to be controversial, even if it's just crossing the street. He's been seen hailing a cab off the street in New York, but Jaipur was a fare too far.

Never mind. If Rushdie couldn't get to India, the centrepiece of the controversy certainly could. Even if he couldn't address Jaipur's janata via video, the censors can't snip off the connections of those downloading PDFs of that novel or its ebook version. That's a more efficient way of foxing the firewalls, than were the Xeroxed copies circulated when the novel was banned in India.

Narrowcast mindsets are happily at work attempting to choke off the broadband of information. The establishment is suffering from a severe case of China Envy, of the Great Firewall of China, that is. That's why it takes an advocate for Google to point out to an Indian judge that India isn't, surprise, authoritarian China! A social network like Facebook has a worldwide user base equal to approximately two-third of India's population. Monitoring the opinion and comments of each of these users is about as feasible as the Indian State supervising the conversations of all its citizens. But some people would love to see the country go from Mother India to Big Brother.

It isn't just India that has its web woes. The United States Congress has before it a pair of bills, the Protect IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act, acronymed PIPA and SOPA, that caused swathes of the Internet, including sites like Wikipedia and Craigslist, to go into daylong darkness on January 18.

These proposed laws would throw "rogue websites" that propagate copyright infringement into the web's equivalent of purgatory. Search engines like Google could even be punished for throwing up query results that led to these sites. Sort of like searching for Tibet or Tiananmen Square in mainland China. But it seems everyone wants to follow the example of the Chinese checkers. American lawmakers are rethinking the details after the SOPA opera, but these measures will return for legislation, like a nastier version of a bruised but not vanquished King Kong.

And there's the curious case of Kim Dotcom. The outsized founder of Megaupload, a file storage and sharing service, was accused of enabling piracy in the US. He was recently arrested from his estate in New Zealand and faces extradition. It's a takedown echoing that of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, for hosting classified American diplomatic cables.

Just about two years ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet." Now, it appears, these networks just make entrenched systems nervous.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has been passing resolutions against "defamation of religion", especially online. Championed by free speech wonderlands like Pakistan, the "anti-blasphemy" resolutions have received support from a majority of the UN's members. Though dormant in recent months, expect more noise from the Islamophobiaphobes.

Freedom of expression already has justified curbs like those on paedophilia. But protecting children is different from treating citizens as children, easily influenced by politically incorrect speech. Sense and censors are rarely compatible.

It's just January and it's already been an awful year for free expression. This fall, the filmed version of Midnight's Children is scheduled for worldwide release. Directed by Deepa Mehta, it brings together two personalities who get the heads of the denizens of lumpenistan exploding. It might not make it to Indian theatres. You'd probably need peer-to-peer software like BitTorrent to watch a pirated version online. And that's if the pirates haven't been PIPAed to the post.

(Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years. The views expressed by the author are personal.)