Curb online voices? No way, Mr Sibal

20 Dec,2011

By Akash Raha

 

Telecom and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal stirred up a hornets’ nest when he recommended censorship of online content. Both freedom of expression and the new world of social media came into focus, with several organizations hosting forums on the issue, such as the Foundation for Media Professionals’ panel discussion on December 19 in New Delhi, titled ‘The new puppeteers: Curbing Social Media’.

 

The media has come down heavily on Mr Sibal’s suggestion that pre-screening or pre-censorship should be carried out to keep a check on the content of social media platforms. Anuradha Raman, Associate Editor, Outlook said that the government is still following the age-old programme codes set for Doordarshan and All India Radio which were formulated in 1982, and which are constantly used to rattle today’s media. She said that if the government wants to wall up websites and dot.com, why not bring it under a code through legislative sanctions rather than arbitrary discrimination? She said that the current system of censorship of media lacks accountability and there is a need for parliamentary representation to spell out these codes properly.

 

Lawrence Liang, a lawyer from Centre for Internet and Society, said it is important that the freedom of speech and expression has to be extended to the terrain of internet rights. The issue of National Security has been brought out repeatedly and it is fine to keep it in mind but not at the cost of free speech and freedom of expression. The government is hereby performing a quasi-judicial role. Moreover, there is lack of transparency in the internet censorship proposal, and today, the work of censorship is being outsourced. He pointed out that the only place where pre-censorship exists is in the case of cinema.

 

Saikat Dutta, Delhi Bureau Chief, DNA, said, “In the name of national security the government is increasing its surveillance footprint.” This has led to the growth of what he called the business of surveillance, which is today a multi-billion-dollar industry. The more the government wants to spread its ambit on surveillance, the more companies selling surveillance services will benefit. He went on to say that these days the government is coming down upon several sites and blocking them and if a site is blocked, no one will ever know what happened. There is no information on why something is blocked.

 

Narayan Madhavan, a senior columnist from Hindustan Times said, “The right of free speech is a constitutional right and not a government-given one. Freedom should be a rule and not an exception. The government is not the state, it is only an arm of the state temporarily given the right by the people.” He added that National Security has become a more fashionable word to use for censorship and that while it is essential, but it should not be used to curb freedom. In a tweet earlier he had written, “Twitter is the new parliament and Facebook is the new café.” He observed that social media is an interactive media and pre-censorship sounds like an act of desperation or lack of technological knowledge.

 

Government has the right to monitor social media just as we can monitor the government by RTI, but there has to be accountability involved. He added that we are culturally an open society and the government cannot put a lid on this. The rights vested by the constitution should not be blocked by a few in the government. This attempted curb should not be seen as a curb only on social media but on media as a whole. It is important to understand when we talk about censorship on social media that the content owners are those who post. Facebook therefore acts as a printer and not as a publisher.

 

Sheela Bhatt from Rediff.com noted that there are still a lot of taboos against the digital medium and the online world, which needs to change quickly. The cause is lack of knowledge about the online space. She started off by condemning the censorship which Mr Sibal talks about, and dwelt on the issue of social media, its powers and nuances. She gave the example of the India Against Corruption page on Facebook and how it became a powerful tool to stand against corruption. She said that the government does not appreciate the form of media which is the internet, and such a mindset is regressive and hampers growth.

 

Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama said that the censorship that we are discussing is already prevalent. The problem is that we don’t know why a certain site is blocked. National Security is a “nice and easy” way to serve political agendas. He said, “For example, if my site is blocked, I don’t know why it is blocked, who blocked it or how to unblock it… all it says at times is, this site is being blocked on request from DoT… We don’t know who gives the order for blocking and unblocking and there is no transparency.” He said that IT and surveillance rules under the garb of National Security needs to be fought as it threatens democracy.

 

Prabir Purkayastha from Delhi Science Forum observed that there are serious problems for any new technology and the same is the case with the internet and social media. “For example, the boundaries of private speech and broadcast are diminishing in the world of social media. What earlier used to be broadcast, now with the internet has become multi-cast. Private censorship is what the government wants right now and it’s not like the one China practices. For China they have a hammer and for them everything else is a nail. But the Indian government is being clever here. It’s like the government is providing safe harbour to those who accept everything that the government is saying and for everyone else, it’s a lost battle. And it’s not social media versus traditional media any more, as what is traditional media is already on social media. The power of surveillance is more pervasive than ever before. The issue is that the government is checking you 24 hours a day, where you are and what you are doing and snooping into your conversations in the name of national security. Today, the new and the old media have to understand that they are not different, and work together to protect themselves.”

 

Mishi Choudhary, Executive Director, SFLC.in, observed, “Taking offence on other people’s behalf has never been as fashionable as it is today,” and censorship has become the new name to protect this. The positive aspects of social media are ignored when there was a tsunami and an earthquake. What really bothered the government is the Arab spring and the revolution in Iran and the Anna Hazare movement.”

 

Shubham Vij of Kafila.org said that pre-censorship of information is not feasible and possible in the current scheme of things and it is only a matter of time before the government realizes this too.

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