Communications Minister Kapil Sibal has clarified that the government did not intend to either interfere or restrict social networking sites but the furore over his proposed monitoring of internet content refuses to subside with legal experts cautioning the authorities against doing so and suggesting better enforcement of existing laws. Not many jurists endorse Sibal's advocacy of monitoring social networking sites for weeding out objectionable material.
The reactions of the legal colleagues of Sibal, himself a lawyer, range from "let us be fair to him" to "perhaps India too needs a Tahrir Square-like revolution".
Known for his advocacy of human rights, particularly among those belonging to the minorities and the vulnerable sections of society, senior counsel Colin Gonsalves told IANS:
"It (Sibal's attempt of monitoring the social network sites) shows that India also needs a revolution like the Arab countries because Sibal's comment shows that India like other Arab dictatorships is moving towards spying on its own people and censoring internet content."
Gonsalves said censoring was not the correct way. "If there is any material on the net which breaks Indian laws, the government can prosecute those persons," he said.
To be fair to Sibal, he was highlighting the "need for a regulator and not advocating any governmental control", said another senior counsel Raju Ramachandran.
Ramachandran, who assisted the Supreme Court in a 2002 Gujarat riots case, said the issues raised by Sibal were "serious and there is no doubt that there is a need for a regulator" but it had to be "independent of the government's control".
Instead of censoring by the government, there should be an independent regulatory mechanism to intervene and act in case of any objectionable material on the social network sites, he said.
"Freedom of media is sacrosanct and it can't be violated," I.H. Syed, another apex court counsel, told IANS.
If there was something that posed a threat to the peace and tranquillity of society or was intimidatory or defamatory, then it could be dealt with by taking recourse to law, he said.
Syed said there were only two ways of dealing with a situation -- either it should be prevented or dealt with after it happened.
In the case of the media, prevention could mean censoring which may not be good for democracy. So unlike medicine, where emphasis is on prevention, in the case of media it should be left to the law taking its course effectively in the event of a mischief, he said.
Who is stopping the government from taking steps available under the law, asked Syed, adding "any day, enforcing law is better than gagging media".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have also cautioned against policing the internet but have not specifically mentioned India.