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We are the Web

Kapil Sibal’s anger at some incendiary trash on the net is justified,his policy response is not

Written by The Indian Express |
December 7, 2011 3:27:23 am

Kapil Sibal,Union minister for communications and information technology,caused great consternation when he declared his intention to scour the Web of “objectionable content”. He showed reporters choice examples of material that maligned Islam,the PM and Sonia Gandhi,among others,and insisted that companies like Facebook,Google,Twitter,etc,make sure they conform to India’s “community standards” and weed this stuff out themselves. He also reportedly added that he didn’t mean automatic filters,he wanted human monitors. He announced these radical changes on his own,without even a pro forma public consultation on a matter that affects our freedoms so powerfully.

We know what Sibal means — there is plenty on the Web that is cruel and twisted. Online anonymity makes it easier to express our vilest thoughts,and say things we might never say in person. Even on forums like Facebook or Twitter,you can find mean,misogynist,untrue and blasphemous things. But the solution that Sibal proposes is far,far worse,and is the reflex of tyrannies and dictatorships. It also shows his fundamental misunderstanding of the Internet — that which cannot be censored,that which routes around all interference — and any attempt to censor it means practically killing it off. The Web is simply all of us,talking to each other. You can’t monitor it any more than you can monitor gossip,or climb inside minds and regulate private thoughts. People are,however,free to look away,or counter words and images with their own. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter,where this conversation occurs,already allow users to report offensive material or abuse — and it is impossible for them to referee all conversation and penalise the nasties. Not to mention the philosophical hurdles in identifying the offensive — what is gratuitous nudity or hate speech to you may be art and political expression to others. Of course,social media sites,now that they allow publishing and broadcasting in their fullest forms,will increasingly face the challenge of governments and regulators.

Yet,Sibal’s approach is wrong-headed — blasphemy,bullying,slander and incitement to violence can be addressed through the courts,whether these provocations are online or offline. The amended rules to the Information Technology Act have already placed inordinate burdens on these intermediaries,to take down all potentially problematic content. This action only confirms how out of touch Sibal is — when as minister of IT and HRD (essentially,the knowledge and innovation sectors) his first instinct is to repress and regulate.

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First published on: 07-12-2011 at 03:27:23 am

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