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Keeping freedom of expression alive in the Internet age

Internet, as Eric & Cohen mentioned in their seminal treatise The New Digital Age, is the largest experiment in anarchy, and I believe it has succeeded. Manish Tewari writes.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2013 03:10 IST
Manish Tewari

Since the inception of civilisation, there have been many creations and innovations that have marked a futuristic roadmap for the people. The impact of such creations has been mixed.

While some have given a new discourse to the people, others have created complex grey areas for the world to mull over and understand. The Internet is one of those creations which has the capacity to do tremendous public good and at the same time become a dreadful evil.

Internet, as Eric & Cohen mentioned in their seminal treatise The New Digital Age, is the largest experiment in anarchy, and I believe it has succeeded. The Internet today represents the largest ungoverned space on Earth. Never before in history have so many people from so many places had so much power at their fingertips. Every two days more digital content is created than since the dawn of civilisation until 2003.

What is evolving is a tale of two civilisations; one physical that has evolved over millennia and one virtual that is still very much in formation. The New Media rides on the back of this virtual civilisation. The Internet has seen exponential growth over the last few years. Internet users are expected to reach five billion by the next decade. In India alone, there are 124 million Internet users and this is expected to grow to 370 million by 2017. The scenario for social media is no different; Facebook and Twitter host nearly 80 million and 18 million Internet users in India respectively.

Virtual civilisation is based on the ‘Binary’ — the language of digital communication. It has emerged as a new companion to various international languages like English, French, Russian, Spanish and Mandarin that have been the medium of diplomacy, literature, governance, social interaction and trade across the globe. It promises to shape an overwhelming architecture of human engagement in the days to come. Human behaviour and norms too are increasingly conditioned by this new language.

As far as the concept and idea of ‘Freedom of Expression’ in the Age of the Internet is concerned, we must acknowledge that, in the digital world, freedom of expression and privacy are mutually exclusive. In the real world it is much more nuanced, far more subtle, if not complex. Interface and regulations that govern this medium are still human or analogue. However, the irony is we are struggling with shaping the human interface to the digital world. Technology is rapidly outpacing our cognitive abilities limited by vocabulary. What we confront is a digitally reactive society either unwilling or unable to evolve responses to the rapidly changing milieu.

There are advocates of absolute freedom of speech and absolute privacy over the Internet but what solutions do they offer for those most likely to get hurt by this absolutism? There has to be no room for digital chauvinism — one person’s freedom can very rapidly translate into fright for another. The question is ‘who decides what is freedom and what is fright?’ Who intervenes and, more importantly, who protects? Are we going to become the Wild West? Cowboy country? Or continue to be an ethos of rules and norms? Given this paradigm we must pause to consider at what point does a personal ‘tweet’ (essentially a digital freedom of expression) turn into a ‘mass broadcast’ — a telecommunications business, in effect — one that should certainly be amenable to certain standards of accountability.

The Internet helps unleash creativity and entrepreneurship that redefines the human experiment. However, along with the wonderful positive developments that the Internet has brought us — creativity, employment, e-government, and more connectivity — there are areas hidden from public view that are negative. This is the ‘dark net’ as some scholars call it and it consists of terrorist networks, cyber criminals, and other insidious networks that aim to twist the Internet to their advantage — the spectre of the hidden people.

In a situation like this, what we’re looking for is the median — the balance that will lead to solutions. The law and norms thus, need to be re-imagined if they are to be effective, more accountable and responsive to the common good. Yet it does not mean that we cede the task of governance to the unknown.

It is the responsibility of the government to keep its citizen safe, especially when it knows that certain people are using the Internet to fan violence. Thus, the government needs to have both, a legal and a technological way to stop use of the Internet for such activities. A turn back to no social media is something that no government can think of. We have seen this with the great firewall of China — where in spite of a ban on Facebook and Twitter — the Chinese social media ‘weibos’ has grown just as big and loud with the Chinese government hard pressed to control it.

We need to introspect as to what would happen if agreed rules of international engagement do not emerge as a binding international compact that encompasses states and other entities that control the underlying hardware of the net.

In the past year-and-a-half some major incidents have reinvigorated the discourse as to how the potential problem of offensive communication over the Internet can be surmounted. As most of us know, the freedom of expression is guaranteed by our Constitution; however, it has reasonable restrictions. Therefore, in the offline world, while protest and dissidence is allowed, if the government feels that it could cause disharmony in the society, it has to step in to do the policing. The conundrum is how these shades of grey should play out in the black and white world of binary. As former US President Franklin Roosevelt said “The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.”

Thus, in a democracy it is imperative that business and civil society come together to become part of the process to keep freedom of expression alive in the Internet age. It is the responsibility of the stakeholders to deliberate the need to strike a right balance or in other words find that ‘equilibrium’ between ‘Right to Privacy’ and ’Right to Anonymity’.

Manish Tewari is Union minister of state (independent charge), Information and Broadcasting. The views expressed by the author are personal.