If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” That sounds like the advice of a stern schoolmaster, or a grandmother who wants her grandchildren to obey parental authority.
But the man who said this is Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, the global Internet giant. His remarks in a CNN interview acquire a special meaning in light of a fascinating but unrelated report in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which shows the delicate dance companies such as Google have to perform in trying to live up to their stated principle of expanding Internet access for all and complying with local regulations.
Google is interesting because it says it will do no evil. When compelled to choose between operating in China and complying with its draconian laws, it chose to operate, but transparently forewarned its users in China that its search engine was censored. Furthermore, Google did not offer services such as blogging and electronic mail in China, which would expose the company to the risk of compromising its principles should the government ask it to disclose the identity of its users or their content. Even so, advocates of free expression criticized Google.
India is supposed to be different. Most Indians cite democracy and freedom as two distinct features which separate India from China. And yet, India’s regulation of the Internet looks similar to that of a closed society, and not an open one; worse, the state’s response is driven by panic.
To be sure, India is not China, and there is considerable freedom for Indians to express their views openly in public and on the Internet. But Indian cyber laws are restrictive, and are drawn from the antediluvian, outmoded thinking shaped in the colonial era—notably, the appalling section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which can punish people who “by words spoken or written, or by signs of visible representations” outrage religious feelings of others. The British Raj liked such a law to keep Indians apart, ostensibly to preserve order.
Drawing inspiration from those laws, and other “reasonable restrictions” on freedom of speech in the Indian Constitution, the ministry of communication and information technology has sweeping powers through which it can block any Internet site in the name of “public order”, national security and preserving friendly relations with other governments. Bureaucrats can block specific sites, and firms must cooperate or their officials would face imprisonment. Sites that have faced official scrutiny include a comic book about a bhabhi (sister-in-law) who is, shall we say, sexually liberated; a news group popular with a separatist group in the North-East; and a social networking site.
The text of these laws is vague and broad; the words can be interpreted strictly or liberally; and the onus is often placed on companies to decide what they can publish and what they must not. Added to that is the ever present threat in India: Permit something offensive on the Net that riles someone, and be prepared for unrest that can easily turn violent. As the WSJ story shows, Google has removed some content on some occasions.
Blaming compliant companies is easy. But companies do not have the capacity, expertise, mandate or authority to guarantee fundamental freedoms; when the state applies pressure on companies, it places them in a dilemma—comply or oppose—and many companies acquiesce with the state’s requests, reasonable or not. Then add the vigilante groups that threaten violence, which, too, can force companies to withdraw content.
Think of the irony: An elected government thinks of the adults who voted it to power as juveniles who must be protected from certain images, thoughts and ideas. The people, too, tolerate such intrusions and erosion of liberties because of fears that freedom without restraint leads to mayhem on the streets.
To be sure, there are enough hotheads among all religions, castes, ethnic groups and language chauvinists, who are raring for the opportunity to burn buses and intimidate communities they don’t like. But instead of punishing such conduct, the state asks those who wish to speak freely to swallow their words. The state succumbs to bullies who dictate their will, deciding what the rest of us can read, see or talk about.
The Internet was supposed to empower people, but in the past decade, that promise has soured. The cyber world increasingly looks like the real world, with restrictions on liberties— sometimes in the name of countering terrorism, sometimes to protect our morals, sometimes to prevent violence. Freedoms have narrowed.
By extending antiquated laws to the modern world, India has weakened Tagore’s dream, where that clear stream of reason was supposed to flow freely, and not lose its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit. The resolution for 2010? To work towards the repealing of section 295A and other laws which treat us as infants requiring adult supervision. Let us be our own conscience-keepers.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org