Is the Indian government right in blocking the digital media?

22 Aug,2012


By Ananya Saha and Robin Thomas


In the recent wake of violence and riots in Assam, and against north-eastern Indians, the government ordered a ban on bulk SMS and blocked access to over 200 webpages. Even as these recent moves might seem to be curtailing freedom of expression, and have received mixed responses from the industry, the spotlight is now on internet freedom and content regulation.


Sidharth Mishra

Sidharth Mishra, Consulting Editor, Millennium Post & President, Centre for Reforms, Development and Justice said, “This is a kneejerk reaction by the government which completely failed to precede what happened with the North East residents. The government is trying to cover up its failure by indulging into such harsh measures on websites. I am not against any monitoring by the government but, there is a difference between monitoring and censorship. The drawbacks of social media domain can be stopped only by prevention and not by reactionary actions which we see from the government. If you ban one website another one will emerge and thus there will be no permanent solution to the problem. The government must therefore be pro-active and keep a vigil on these issues and then take necessary steps as and when required, rather than just putting a blanket ban.”


As morphed images and hate messages targeted towards a certain community spread like wildfire, the Indian government is trying to tighten its noose on social media, and telecom operators. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been warned to pull off and remove the objectionable content by the Indian government, perhaps remembering Arab Spring that relied heavily on protests on the social media in the early stages and helped mobilise public opinion for several key social issues.


LinkedIn, Yahoo!, and Sify did not participate in the story, but a Google spokesperson clarified, “We understand the gravity of the situation, strongly condemn acts of violence, and continue to work closely with relevant authorities. Content intended to incite violence, such as hate speech, is prohibited on Google products where we host content, including YouTube, Google+ and Blogger. We act quickly to remove such material flagged by our users. We also comply with valid legal requests from authorities wherever possible, consistent with our longstanding policy.”


P N Vasanti

But the damage has already been done, according to industry veterans. “The government should have taken steps like these earlier. Even though I am a strong supporter of freedom of internet and media, any instance that triggers communal violence should be strictly dealt with. I do not agree with censorship but penalising those who spread illegal, harmful and abusive material is important,” said P N Vasanti, Director, Centre for Media Studies.


The government had initiated the Convergence Bill in 2000, with the objective of establishing a new “converged” regulatory framework to promote and develop the communications sector (including broadcasting, telecommunications and multimedia) in an environment of increasing convergence of technologies, services and service providers. In a multi-media environment when procedure of ownership and registration is as doubtful, the Bill would have helped in such a crisis. However, it failed to become operative.


Pavan Duggal

Pavan Duggal, Advocate, Supreme Court of India who specialises in the field of Cyberlaw, said, “The freedom of speech is relative, and is subject to relevant restriction. The govt is blocking out the content, which is anti-India. This is a legitimate step, but the govt needs to focus on the steps so that misuse of social media does not happen in the future. Only close to 200 websites have been blocked, which was a necessary step. The govt also needs to come up with specific rules for mobile operators, in time, so that the handheld tool is not misused.”


Another industry analyst suggested that the government should plan long-term framework on the communication monitoring across the nation on the virtual and mobile platform to avoid similar circumstances in the future.


BG Mahesh
BG Mahesh

BG Mahesh, Founder & MD, Greynium Information Technologies, opined, “SMS limit surely affects many but monitoring of social media, blogs has no effect on the majority as they are not doing anything anti-national. If my tweets are being read by the govt I am perfectly ok with it, after all it is in the public domain already. Free speech is a must but then people should not be posting anti-national content and spreading rumors. At the same time govt too should not be blocking content if it feels the policies are being criticized.”


Giving a different perspective, Sanjay Aggarwal, CEO, Unicel Technologies, said, “What is effectively a blanket ban is actually not in the public interest. Banning communication systems in such a critical time can worsen the law-and-order situation rather than improving it. The lack of truthful news messages creates an information vacuum which increases anxiety and drives people even more toward unreliable rumors.


Sanjay Aggarwal

Despite the ban, person to person messaging is likely to continue as this is virtually impossible to control by the operators.” He further added, “Due to the SMS ban, as an industry we are looking at a 15-20% loss in this quarter, but considering the loss to our customers as well, businesses will take a hit in a multi-crore dimension and the numbers will be big. We have suffered bans in the past, and the financial impact is always large, but their effectiveness in achieving the government’s objectives is questionable.” There already exist solutions like BBM for Blackberry users and Nimbuzz, if the consumers prefer a multi-platform communication platform to avoid the SMS-related communication problems.


Arunava Sinha, Head, & at Web 18, agreed. He said, “If the internet is the trigger, which I really doubt it is, then blocking the access to the websites is not the solution. It does not take much time to create another website. How many sites can only block? The solution is to act proactively, and do prompt campaigns and tell people not to believe in such messages.”


Just as print media is responsible for it publishes, and follows self-regulation, is it time that internet be also regulated through the same protocols?


“Any organization that wants to sustain itself will have to maintain some kind of self-regulation. They have to show some kind of responsibility towards the society. So, definitely self regulation is necessary and I am sure that most websites follow self regulation. At the same time some kind of government monitoring is also all right but, there must not be any censorship on the site or the internet,” said Mr Mishra.


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