THE MOVING FINGER WRITES
By M.V. Kamath
Technology is creating havoc in the world of social communication as has recently become evident in a demand by Kapil Sibal, Information Technology Minister, that on-line content should be regulated. It would seem that he was incensed to see on one website an image of Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi in intimate contact and on another, pigs running through Mecca. This might have driven him to demand of the websites to remove such content or face action. And, understandably, it has created a furore in media circles. The use of morphed images or Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh in Facebook in plainly sickening and one can well imagine Sibal’s distress.
There cannot be two questions about it. But what is the way out? The print media, even TV news channels in India have their own reporters and news editors and one can’t even dream of a replication of Facebook’s atrocious content in any of them. But it is a different story with social media sites. Facebook has about 800 million active users with more than half of them logging on to it on any given day. According to media reports Facebook carried three pages titled “I Hate Sonia Gandhi” and two were entitled “We hate Sonia Gandhi”. Is that sufficient reason to demand that they are blocked out? If someone wants to vent his spleen in a web site, is it necessary to make a song and dance about it?
Aam aadmi is not always a sophisticated creature to keep his feelings under control. But who says that sophisticated people do not use expletives when they are angry or unduly upset? Would one describe former US President Richard Nixon as “unsophisticated”? And yet even he, in his private conversation with his National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger – we have Kissinger’s words for it – has been known to use foul language against Indira Gandhi that would have made a mentally sick person blush. Nixon had no inhibition in swearing at persons he hated. As we all know, the websites are only a recent development; despite that, there are supposedly in India over 100 million users. In other words practically one out of twelve Indian citizens have access to these sites and to expect them to be decorous is to live in a dream world. To try to monitor these sites one would have to employ an army of monitors – an entirely unpaying proposition.
The wise thing is to ignore them. Hindustan Times recently held an On-Line Poll. The question asked was: “Who should monitor the Web?” 94 per cent said: “Nobody”. Only 2 per cent supported state control. But then one must also take into consideration a similar poll conducted by a TV channel in which, apparently, 54 per cent thought state control was appropriate. Nevertheless some obvious questions arise: Who is to draw the Laxman Rekha? What constitutes a crime? In developed countries, it appears, requests for removal of content are based on specific local laws. Thus, we understand, in the first six months of 2011 Google removed 1,814 items for Norway. And in South Korea some 414 ads for violating Food and Drug Laws. Does Indian have such laws? Provisions exist in the Indian Penal Code, one understands that can be used to bring erring websites to book. Why not exercise them?
Kapil has cause to be upset. No decent human being would use a web to run down a politician – or anyone, for that matter – in an indecent manner, considering that in India Facebook has estimated 2.8 crore users, making it fifth largest user base in the world. It should have known better than to see it being used as a gutter site. The trouble is that there has been in the last couple of decades a tectonic change in social values that is shocking to people of an older generation. Sex is no longer something to be shunned and not to be discussed openly. Reference to it these days whether in novels or in website has become common place. Think of Dirty Picture. One has to read the memoirs, just published, of two distinguished editors to see how casually illicit sex relations are openly admitted and without the slightest feeling of impropriety. The reference to Sonia Gandhi, in the circumstances, would probably only elicit a chuckle – nothing more. No one would take it seriously. But where will these changes take us? A good question. The answer is: We don’t know. Years ago there were “Contract Marriages” in Gujarat. No one objected to them.
There are today literally thousands of live-in life styles, unmarried men and women living together. That, too, is tacitly accepted. Freedom has many faces; with an eye on family planning and health benefits, the State Election Commission in Maharashtra had framed in September 2000 directions that restricted the number of children a member of the Municipal Corporation can have to two. Under the rule, any Corporator having a third child after 2001 was liable to be stripped of his or her election seat. Furthermore, the Commission also apparently barred anyone with over two children from contesting a local body election. What would one call that rule: curtailing freedom of expression? What one has to be more concerned about is the time spent by the young in visiting websites.
According to an article in Coastal Mirror (December 2011) many young people are getting into depression and suffering from identity crisis. As the article put it: “Whether it’s a businessman faking his company’s profits and details or a pedophile stalking innocent victims, social networking sites have brought with them a host of issues which needs immediate attention”. The term ‘social’ in describing some web-sites is ironical. They are anything but social. They are anti-social. It comes as a shock to see the United States batting for Internet freedom. As the State Department spokesman Mark Toner told the media: “We believe that freedom of expression applies equally to the Internet as it does in the real world.”
This is making a mockery of freedom of expression Kapil Sibal may not have too many admirers, but the issue he has raised – even in a specific contest – calls for deep reflection. The Internet and the websites are damaging home life, turning the young into robots and unconsciously damaging our cultural heritage. It may be fashionable to defend “freedom of expression”. What our ‘intellectuals’ do not realise is that this so-called “freedom” is damaging our very cultural heritage. They need to be called to order in the interests not just of individuals and families, but of our nation itself.