Almost a decade ago, I spent a year living in Shanghai, as part of a research fellowship. I spent time with digital cultural producers and wrote about the ways in which they navigated the restrictive terrains of the web. One of the groups that I was working with, introduced me to a stuffed toy called Cao Ni Ma which, spoken one way means, “mud grass horse”. But the same words with a different tone resulted into an offensive mother-related expletive. The Cao Ni Ma, that year, was the best-selling toy in the Chinese market during the new year celebrations, and had broken the internet with memes, videos, and imaginary pictures that emerged once it was conceived in a prank encyclopedia page titled the “10 legendary obscene beasts of China”. The humour was juvenile to my eyes, reminiscent of dorm-room talk as well as old internet discussion forums where tech nerds came with the keyword Pr0n or Prawn to escape the prying eyes of primitive censorship algorithms.
However, as I quickly learned, this was not just fun and games. The reason why this entire thing had gone viral was because China had, by then, established a complete control over what can and cannot be said online. Chinese internet intermediaries — like Baidu, which run the Chinese version of Wikipedia, for instance — had not only complied but also internalised the censoring of all speech that was found offensive to the sovereignty and integrity of the country. This included critique of the state and political leaders, a voicing of complaint about poor infrastructure or governance, any expression of desire or profanity that would be socially unacceptable. Intermediaries in China, even before the social credit systems were announced, were mandated and enabled to remove all content that they thought might “shatter the harmony” of the “Chinese way of living”.
I didn’t realise how deep this regulation of the intermediaries goes till I accidentally ended up writing about Cao Ni Ma, and the playfulness of their subversion on my research blog. It was, in fact, in an academic paper that I presented at a conference in Taiwan and so I had announced it on my social media. While I was in Taiwan, my email suddenly started singing. My host colleagues were concerned about my well-being. My departmental colleagues were asking me about my whereabouts. The dean of the faculty asked me to stay back in Taiwan longer and to not come back to Shanghai till I heard from him again. It took me six more days before I was finally reunited with my guest house, and all my stuff. Upon return, I had friendly visits from five different committees, ranging from academic ethics panel that had approved my research project to the immigration and police who wanted to know more about my research.
Once the ordeal was over — though I was warned that another infringement would not be tolerated — I kept on re-reading what I had written to figure out what could have triggered this amount of anxiety. When I asked a Chinese friend, she looked at me with telling eyes. “It is not what you have written but the fact that you have written about it as well. You can’t write about this because it undermines the government”. The regulation of intermediaries was not about making the internet safe, keeping hate speech at bay, and building a more inclusive web. It was purely and simply about determining who can say what about what. There were no clear guidelines because anything that could be interpreted as unwanted automatically became unwanted.
The current Indian government has proposed a new internet bill that seeks to mimic the Chinese control of information and voices to the T. The new intermediaries liability and content monitoring act that will become a law in February, unless resisted and critiqued, unquestioningly expands the remit of the government, through private intermediaries, to control what we can see and read, and also what we can say and share. It is yet another assault in an atmosphere where newspapers, civil society organisations, political protestors, and common persons are targeted, bullied, and intimidated into silence.
Without public support and attention, this law is most likely going to pass. I am making a list of all the things we might no longer be able to say on the web — and also obsessively looking at the Instagram egg while I still can, because just like the midday meal, the egg might soon disappear from our vegetarian webs.
This article appeared in print with the headline: The Egg Vanishes: The proposed new internet bill is as repressive as the worst of Chinese restrictions