Poor Kapil Sibal. He must be suffering from the foot-in-the-mouth disease. Nothing that he says seems acceptable to the print media. His latest gaffe is his demand to smother the websites, though he kept saying that he was not asking for censorship. It is not that the media is unaware of what is available in the internet. As Deccan Herald (December 9) put it, “few will dispute that the internet contains images and text that are ugly, violent, incorrect, slanderous and downright incendiary”. “On-line anonymity” said the paper, “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, agreed the paper. However, it added: “Sibal’s move to cleanse the web of ‘objectionable content’ is ill-conceived” and “reeks of censorship” and his plan to have its content pre-screened is anti-free speech”.
Business Line (December 9) said “banning Twitter or Facebook is what the likes of China and Saudi Arabia have done – which is certainly not the way to go for the world’s largest democracy”, adding: “The more sensible thing to do is to monitor content after it has been uploaded and reported as being objectionable”.
Economic Times (December 9) granted that there is no merit in the outcries of outrage over imperiled freedom of expression” but pointed out that Sibal’s demand is “impracticable”. “How do we respect cultural sensitivity without giving in to the demands of intolerance?” it asked. The paper said that Sibal has a point to make, “free speech is not unbridled anywhere”, majority sentiment must be respected, how to put this principle into practice is a matter for reasoned debate, not hyperventilation”.
The Hindu (9 December) wanted to know “what restrictions on free speech are reasonable and who will make this determination”, pointing out that the amended version of the Information Technology Act which became law in 2009 “is an invitation to government abuse” and “strengthens widespread suspicion that the inflammatory content argument is really a cover for censoring political attacks and uninhibted criticism circulating in the social media”. That paper, after going through the pros and cons of all arguments said that “one idea that could be explored is bringing in an independent regulator, empowered by law to deal with complaints about internet content, with the threshold for the admissibility of complaints raised high”. “India”, said the paper, “is as things stand, readying a sledge-hammer to swat some flies, the blow, when it falls, could end up undermining one of the most cherished freedoms”.
Hindustan Times held an On-Line Poll. The question asked was: “Who should monitor the web?” 94 per cent said: “Nobody”, only two per cent supported state control. The Chennai-based News Today (December 7) damned the UPA government saying: “The whole fiasco looks like yet another ill-conceived stab at smothering public opinion”. Actually, said the paper: “Quite simply there aren’t anything in the internet that cannot be tackled by existing laws of the land” and asked: “Do the officials want broader powers, like the ability to stifle any and all criticism? This is starting to sound Tiananmen-inspired”. Nettlesome as it is, the problem, said the paper, is not censorship. The pre-screening process is”. The paper pointed out that “rules framed earlier this year around India’s Information Technology Act require intermediaries like Internet service providers to remove content that is found objectionable within a period of 36 hours of being notified of the content… But there isn’t a provision that requires intermediaries to filter and remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content even before it is posted”. What seems likely, the paper said, is that the Indian administration “isn’t comfortable with the emerging technologies”.
The Free Press Journal gave some sound advice to Sibal saying that his demands are “most unlikely to succeed”. The proposal to police the internet for ‘incendiary content’, the paper said “is crazy” and “it is just not possible”. Maintaining that “the foremost property of the internet is the freedom it allows its users”, the paper said, “like any other freedom, free speech too tends itself to be misused occasionally” but “that can be no reason to throw the baby alone with the bath-water”. Politicians, the paper said, “need a thick hide to remain in business” and to “try to impose censorship is to attack free speech”. Trash, said the paper, “can be ignored whether it is oral or in print or on the net…. Sibal should quietly retreat”. India Today (19 December) carried an article by Bhavna Vij-Aurora which said that Sibal’s much-repeated justification for blatant censorship of social media is easily exposed”. Facts, it said, proved that the government is not worried about communalism on the Net, largely because there isn’t much of it “but is livid at criticism of ruling VIPs”. “Somebody should remind Sibal that it is not the Emergency and he is not dealing with traditional media. This is Internet and it cannot be edited. There is no editor to arrest”. The tragedy is that our urban intellectuals, including Sibal have missed the point about what is wrong with the Internet and it has taken a small town, but intellectually commanding journal called Coastal Mirror (December 2011) to remind everyone that many young people are getting into depression and suffering from identity crisis, watching the web sites.
The term ‘social’ in describing some websites is ironical, the journal rightly said. Do our intellectuals, and leader writers realise what emotional damage is being done to youngsters who spend hours at a time chasing websites? The issue is not Kapil Sibal. It is not even censorship. It is the untold, and hitherto unexamined, damage done to the young which is largely going unnoticed. When will our ‘intellecutals’ and defenders of free speech come down to reality? How stupid can one be? Sibals may come and go, but let this be said in all sincerity: Beware of technology. It is set to destroy values and is that what our intellectuals want to see happen? Think it over folks. Sibal may be a good lawyer, but he merely chose the wrong case to argue. There is more to the websites than anyone dares to inquire into.