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A Congress move to censor the new media threatens a vital safety valve and reveals a prickly and petty India, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Dec 07, 2011 23:26 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

‘As a frequent victim of “disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content” on social media, I wish2stress (sic) I’m not in favour of censoring it.’

If Shashi Tharoor, writer, former minister, Congress MP and a preferred Twitterati punching bag isn’t fazed by abuse — as he declared in this Tuesday tweet — why should his colleague, telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal?

The affable Sibal has now become a hate figure virtually overnight, revealing how the Web works and how futile it is to play nanny. On Tuesday, #idiotKapilSibal was one of the top five phrases (or hashtags) on Twitter, generating the kind of hate mail he wants stopped. Sibal said he has, over the past three months, failed in his efforts to convince Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo! to stop “defamatory” and “inflammatory” content before it’s uploaded on their social networking websites. The provocation, according to the New York Times’ India Ink blog, was a Facebook page mocking Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

India’s wild, wide web with its 100 million users, third only to China and the US, is a place more open, vitriolic and free than the country at large. There are three pages titled ‘I hate Sonia Gandhi’ on Facebook. Two are titled ‘We hate Sonia Gandhi’. Name a personality and an issue, and you will find the argumentative Indian has a strong opinion. On Tuesday, Sibal showed reporters an image of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi having sex and another of pigs running through Mecca. Despite such seemingly extreme content and passions, little spills into real life. In a sense, the web acts as a safety valve, allowing people to vent online.

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, an avid Twitter user, insists social media can be dangerous. “I hate the idea of censorship but have seen for myself how dangerous inflammatory content on #facebook & #youtube can be”, he tweeted, referring to the mobilisation of rioters on Facebook in Kashmir last summer. For all the furore now, no one spoke up when teens were jailed for Facebook updates.

India’s web users, unlike more conservative television viewers, oppose State control. To the question, ‘Who should monitor the web?’, in a Hindustan Times Online poll on Tuesday night, 94% said, ‘Nobody’. Only 2% supported State control, as against 54% in a similar snap poll on CNN-IBN.

Now that the big four have told Sibal they cannot or will not pre-censor, he says the government might, though he has not explained how. Surely, he does not want India to become another China, running a governmental Orwellian censor network that reaches into every computer?

Google’s Transparency Report, which tracks national requests to block content, reveals that content-withdrawal requests from the world’s largest democracy are already worthy of a tinpot dictatorship. All requests to Google from developed countries relate to specific local laws. In the first six months of 2011, Google removed 1,814 items for Norway, based on two requests, for violating marketing laws; it removed 441 ads for South Korea for violating food and drug laws. From the US, Google rejected two requests from separate law enforcement agencies to remove YouTube videos of police brutality and defamation of local law-enforcement officials.

As for emerging nations, in Thailand, Google restricted access to 90% of 225 YouTube videos for alleged insulting the monarchy, a violation of Thai law. In Turkey — not exactly a lodestar of democracy — Google restricted users from seeing YouTube videos that violated local laws centred on videos and blogs that documented details about the private lives of political officials.

Removal-of-content requests made to Google by India are random, widespread and have little to do with violations of Indian law and more to do with a general national affinity for being prickly, petty and insecure. “We received requests from [Indian] State and local law enforcement agencies to remove YouTube videos that displayed protests against social leaders or used offensive language in reference to religious leaders,” says the Google Transparency Report for January to June 2011. “We declined the majority of these requests and only locally restricted videos that appeared to violate local laws prohibiting speech that could incite enmity between communities. In addition, we received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove 236 communities and profiles from Orkut that were critical of a local politician. We did not comply with this request, since the content did not violate our community standards or local law.”

Sibal argues these ‘community standards’ differ from similar Indian standards, but he does not explain how. Between July to December 2010, Google reports: “We received requests from different law enforcement agencies to remove a blog and YouTube videos that were critical of chief ministers and senior officials of different states. We did not comply with these requests.” The number of Indian content removal requests increased 123% compared to the previous period.

What of our volatile neighbour, Pakistan? There were no data deletion requests for a year to July 2011. Before that, Pakistan itself blocked YouTube for six days after a Facebook user organised a competition called ‘Everyone Draw Mohammad Day’.

The Congress has a dubious track record of clamping down on freedom of expression whenever it is in trouble. In 1977, with political unrest in India, Indira Gandhi imposed a nationwide emergency. In 1988, her son Rajiv Gandhi, irked at criticism of his policies, clumsily tried (and failed) to pass a vague, anti-defamation bill to rein in the print media. In 2011, a party struck by policy paralysis is trying to censor the noisy media of choice for the noisy, new India.

You may now ask me, can I abuse you? Sure. Many do. I can block you on Facebook or Twitter. I can report you as well. But I choose to ignore you. Nothing is more effective.

First Published: Dec 07, 2011 23:23 IST

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