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The fine line when online

india Updated: Dec 06, 2011 21:18 IST

With great power comes great freedom. Which, in turn, calls for being responsible. The act to do things freely is one of the fundamental joys of being part of a liberal democracy. With powerful technological platforms and social networking sites such as Facebook, even repressed societies get to savour unfettered expression. But there is a flip side to such a freedom.

And this involves the need to respect the rights of others not to be targets of hatred. We, in India, have maintained a fine balance of being free to express ourselves and at the same time understanding the need to draw a line when it comes to being downright offensive. Sometimes, though, governments have shown undue nervousness when such nervousness is unwarranted. The latest episode of the UPA government wanting internet companies to evolve a mechanism to monitor and regulate ‘derogatory’ and ‘defamatory’ content stems from this fear. The companies, on their part, have promised to respond if any specific complaint was brought to their notice. So this is not an issue involving a ‘Big Brother government vs libertarian citizens’ stand-off. It is about the sanctity of free speech being maintained by underlining the need to be sensitive about what one airs.

Individual cases of defamation or ‘causing offence’ should indeed be dealt with by the courts of law, the same way that emotions spilling over on to the streets need to be contained by law and order forces. But there are cases — involving communal and inflammatory content — that certainly have to be nipped in the bud. Which is where internal checks on online platforms can help. Posting a sentinel to check the enormous amount of user-generated content emanating from a country the size of India, however, is unfeasible. Taking on large parts of the internet — its social networking sites or its search and query platforms — serves little purpose. A networking site like Facebook has often been disparaged for its epic indifference to privacy. (A recent New Yorker profile had described its founder Mark Zuckerberg as an “over-sharer in the age of over-sharing”.) But the silver lining in that dark cloud is that wide access to content also makes it impossible to plan something nefarious or sinister. The internet may help galvanise political anger or generate momentum for protests, but the worst offences to humanity are not planned on open, accessible sites hosted by it.

The need to curb inflammatory material is intrinsic to the need to speak freely. Public sensitivities have often been used as an excuse to browbeat free thought and creative outputs. A representation — online or otherwise — that is crass and in poor taste deserves to be ignored or criticised. But there are cases when pre-emption — that is before it becomes, in the phraseology of the internet, ‘viral’ — is required. And if this comes from the platforms under the scanner themselves, that would be take away the need for a government to be concerned. Those speaking freely should remember that what they say matters. And the best advertisement for free speech is when offensive, incendiary outpourings are plucked out of the vocabulary.