Threat to freedom

The US Congress’ legislative threat to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia and some other international web sites, which led them to shut down in protest for one day this week, and the Delhi high court proceedings against 21 social networking sites have different reasons but they have a common theme of a rising challenge to freedom of expression in the cyber world.

Two US bills called SOPA and PIPA, which are under consideration of the Congress with the ostensible purpose of checking intellectual property and copyright violations, may give the government the power to intervene in the working of web sites and to punish them. The punishment can choke them by blocking advertisements and removal of sites from search engines. The legislations are yet to be passed but votaries of a free internet feel that the threat is real. The existing laws in the US are strong enough to deal with the copy rights and IPR issues. The fact is it is not possible to vet and monitor each piece of information and video on these sites and forcing them to do so would be to send them out of operation.

The Indian government’s demands on social networking sites like Google and Facebook,  articulated by union telecom minister Kapil Sibal some time ago, and the grant of permission to prosecute some of  them also pose a similar threat. The charges against them that they incite communal hatred and endanger national integrity are flimsy. There has not been a single untoward incident in India caused by the working of these sites. As in the US, pre-screening, monitoring and filtering out of content before it is uploaded is technically and humanly impossible. Even China, which keeps a strict watch on such sites, has found it difficult. There is already a legal provision that mandates action within 36 hours of the uploading of any offensive content on the web sites.

Apart from the difficulties in monitoring content, it is not desirable in a democracy to pre-censor content in social media. Much of the intolerance exhibited against such media arises from ignorance about their role and working. Self-regulation is necessary and possible in conventional media but not in the free world of social networking platforms. The attempts in the US and in India to muzzle and cripple them are exaggerated responses.

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