Anti-democratic

Anti-democratic

Information Technology minister Kapil Sibal’s move to regulate online content has kicked up a storm in the real and virtual worlds. Expressing concern over ‘objectionable content’ on social networking and microblogging sites, he has called on executives of Internet companies such as Google and Facebook to evolve mechanisms to remove such content. He has drawn attention to online material that is provocative, offensive to religious communities and slanders individuals and has called for prescreening of this content by human monitors. Few will dispute that the Internet contains images and text that are ugly, violent, incorrect, slanderous and downright incendiary. Online anonymity encourages twisted minds to vent abuse on the Internet and spread provocative rumours in Twitterverse. That social media has immense potential for misuse is well known.

Yet Sibal’s move to cleanse the web of ‘objectionable content’ is ill-conceived. It reeks of censorship. It puts India in the ranks of authoritarian countries like China that have cracked down on social media. Sibal has spoken of regulating the Internet, not censoring it. But his plan to have its content pre-screened is anti-free speech. It will defeat the essence of the Internet, which provides everyone with a truly democratic platform for articulation of views. Blog and twitter have given every human being a voice. They don’t have to belong to media organisations to be heard or seen. This liberating character of the Internet will be destroyed by Sibal’s online cleaning plans. There are several troubling questions that his moves raise. How does one decide what is objectionable? Who will decide this? What if the content is legal but unpleasant to the ears of Sibal and his friends in government? Will that content too be considered unfit to go online?

Most internet services such as Facebook and YouTube have their own in-built mechanisms to flag and filter abusive content. But this isn’t enough for the government.
It wants to go further. The question is whether it will be possible for human monitors to screen every single tweet, blog post and other content that is being posted online every single minute of the day. Is the IT ministry aware that with regard to tweets alone, it will have to look at hundreds of millions of tweets generated per day?  Sibal’s concern over objectionable online content is understandable. His solution suggests that he is dancing in the dark.

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