Wikipedia went off the air just days after minister for telecommunication Kapil Sibal had come on the screen. The two events were about two different debates in two different countries. But they had a common thread. These were both cases of archaic laws and mindsets struggling with the rules being set by an information revolution. Wikipedia, joined by a number of internet corporate presences like Google, was protesting a pending piece of US legislation called the Stop Online Privacy Act (Sopa) which would try to combat the spread of illegally downloaded films and photographs. Mr Sibal was on air to sell the government's proposals, paralleling a similar demand in a private lawsuit, that internet firms like Google and so on must develop means to block "objectionable" material from their sites and search algorithms.
The US bill and the Indian case revolve around the difficulty that the authorities have in controlling access to digital media. Today, all movies, books, photographs and personal electronic messages have become bundles of binary code that can be copied, transmitted and morphed with the click of a button. The bill refl-ects the film and music industry's concerns about the revenue loss due to widespread unpaid downloads. The Indian debate is more about a long standing divide between proponents of freedom of information and those concerned with the social or security consequences of incendiary speech. The problems inherent in this are encapsulated in Articles 69a and 79 of the Indian Telecommuni-cations Act - one that wholeheartedly backs free speech and the other that provides a long list of exceptions including blasphemy and pornography.
This is a pointless debate. The real issue should be the basic principles and procedures by which it is decided what is unacceptable and who is held responsible. First, there is a strong case against pre-censorship. It is technologically impossible to make a search engine distinguish between the nice and nasty versions of a double entendre. Google and similar companies have been more than willing to take post facto action when they have received a complaint. This seems like a sound procedure. Even totalitarian States depend primarily on screening and blocking what appears rather than trying to pre-empt its arrival. Second, India needs to follow other liberal democracies in making clear that intermediaries - like websites and search engines - should have limited liability for the information created by some other entity that they happen to carry or dig up. As for the US's battle over digital piracy: as it becomes ever easier to manipulate data, a new business model regarding films and music is inevitable. Bollywood understands that already. It has almost given up trying to stomp out pirate cassettes and video discs. Finding a new model would be a better focus for the energies of the entertainment industry.