The last couple of weeks were made for the internet. It was as if we, the people, received a notice that spring is in the air, and now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of stupidity. The government has moved from the business of bandobast to handing out bans, and the social media has banded together in a frenzied feeding where no sooner does one ban lose its teeth, then another appears, more absurd and bizarre than the one before.
We haven’t yet ended the first quarter of the year, and already six bans have been bandied around. You no longer have the right to bear beef, the right to torture yourself with a movie that was apparently about sex, but largely turned out to be about legal contracts, the right to hear the word “lesbian” in a Bollywood film, the right to watch a documentary about a rape that killed a little bit of something in all of us, the right to watch Mallika Sherawat draped in a tri-coloured sheet, and if you are in Bangalore, like I am right now, then the right to invite “foreigners” to your parties. The digital bandwidth has reached its peak, one ban followed the other, creating on social media, a never-ending party of sharing, memeing, and gay abandon, as the Twitterati waited for the next big thing to be banned.
Apart from the digital eye-rolling that accompanies these absurd bans from a government that has suddenly realised that it has the rattle of power in its hands and is shaking it rather noisily, there are a couple of other ways that the internet is implicated in this furore. The first and the most obvious is that everything that gets banned eventually finds its way back on to the Web. Remember how everybody saw the AIB Roast after it was banned? Have you seen the rise in BitTorrent traffic for people downloading 50 shades of whatsisname? The take-down notice on the documentary India’s Daughter was effective for 19 minutes, I think, before hundreds of copies appeared on every video streaming site you can imagine, ensuring that everybody, even those who would not have seen it, now has a copy. The internet is the true leveller, because it no longer allows for a central authority to determine the scope, breadth, penetration and flow of information. And yet, like robots gone rogue, governments insist on trying to retain control over things that are so banal that the bans only add to their circulation value.
The second way in which the internet becomes central to these debates is in how it has created search as the default paradigm of our knowledge quests. In the days of yore, when Google was just a funny word that only math geeks knew, our relationship with information was different. If the blessed people in power, while watching porn in the legislative assemblies (remember #porngate) decided that you and I, mere mortals as we are, should not be led astray by prurient messaging, and imposed a ban, that was more or less that. Oh, sure, we could move courts, file petitions, stage protests, and fight till we are blue in the face (without the need of a ball gag, between) for our right to consume what we like, but till the centre acquiesced to our demands, we could do nothing more but wait and serve.
However, in the days of predictive algorithms, where Amazon is probably already shipping out beef-flavoured tofu to users in Maharashtra, even before they buy on their one-click options, and companies are employing happy algorithms to tell them what your needs are whether you like it or not, ban on information is a joke. We no longer depend on discovery through accident, laborious visits to libraries and archives, or surreptitious trawling through underground markets to get our substance of choice. From the deepest recesses of the dark web to the heavily foregrounded search box, almost anything we need, is located on some server somewhere, waiting for the powerful network of the internet to bring it to us at the speed of an obscene click.
We were sitting at a workshop in Bangalore, discussing the government in its blindness, when my friend and colleague Rohini Lakshane very insightfully told us that the only way to effectively ban information is to change the algorithms and processes of search. And while Google might not comply, she at least gave a wonderful option for all governments seeking to impose bans — Halal Googling. When you do Halal Googling, you get sites that are marked halal, good for you, suitable for viewing of a reasonable man, and free from the contamination of “evil and western” perspectives. Somebody please bring this to the attention of our ruling saffron ministers, though you might want to be careful while referencing it. I am not sure if the word halal is yet banned or not.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore