It took me some time to trust the cloud. Growing up with digital technologies that were neither resilient nor reliable — a floppy drive could go kaput without you having done anything, a CD once scratched could not be recovered, hard drives malfunctioned and it was a given that once every few months your PC would crash and need a re-install — I have always been paranoid about making backups and storing information. Once I kicked into my professional years, I developed a foolproof, albeit paranoid, system, where I backed up my machines to a common hard drive, made a mirror image of that hard drive, and for absolutely crucial documents, I would put them on to a separate DVD which would have the emergency documents. It was around 2006, when I discovered the cloud.
It began with Google’s unlimited email accounts where you could mail information to yourself and then it would stay there for a digital eternity. I noticed that the size of my digital storage began decreasing. I no longer download videos I find on the web. I don’t save information on a device and I have come to think of the web as one large cloud, relying on the fact that if something is online once, it will always be available to me.
However, over the last couple of months, I have started noticing something different in my usage patterns. These days, when I do come across interesting information, instead of merely indexing it, I find myself making an offline copy of that information. Tweets enter a Storify folder. YouTube videos get downloaded. I make PDF copies of blogs and take screenshots of digital medial updates. I have been wondering why I am suddenly so invested in archiving the web when, theoretically, it is always there.
When I voiced this to a group of young students, I was surprised to hear that I wasn’t alone. The web is becoming a space that is crowded with take-downs, deletions, removals, and retractions which leave no archival memory. The students quickly pointed out that these take-downs are not just personal redactions. In fact, what we personally choose to remove has very little chances of actually disappearing from the web. Instead, these are things that are removed by governments, private companies and intermediaries who are being largely held liable for the content of the information that they make available.
Turkey, recently, demanded that German authorities remove a satirical German video titled Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan mocking their President. In response, Germany reminded the Turkish diplomacy of that lovely little thing called freedom of speech, and in the meantime, Extra 3, the group that had released the video on YouTube, added English subtitles to the video. Just for perks. I hope you gave a brownie point to Germany, even as you scrambled to see the video.
On the home front, though, things are not as celebratory. The minister of state for information and broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Rathore, and the head of the BJP’s information and technology cell, Arvind Gupta, have called for action against journalist Raghav Chopra who tweeted a photoshopped image of PM Narendra Modi bending down to touch the feet of a man dressed in Saudi Arabia’s national dress, to make a political comment about the PM’s recent visit to SA.
The two politicos, who have not had much to say about the doctored videos that were used to convict innocent students in JNU or the photoshopping that the government’s Press Information Bureau had indulged in to give us that iconic image of the prime minister doing an aerial survey of #ChennaiFloods, have taken umbrage against an image because it seems (obviously) false, and are demanding its takedown.
My proclivity for saving things offline is perhaps fuelled by this web of partisan censorship and the atmosphere of precarious hostility that governments seem to be supporting. Increasingly, we have seen, in India and around the globe, a rush of political power that exercises its clout to remove information, images and stories that they do not approve of.
Instinctively, I am reacting to the fact that intellectual questioning or cultural critique is being removed from the web at the behest of these vested powers, and that the cloud, light and airy as it sounds, is prone to some incredible acts of censorship and removal. I have found myself facing too many removal notices and take-down errors when trying to revisit bookmarked sites, that I am beginning to feel that the only way to keep my information safe might be to archive the whole web on a personal server.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.