The controversies surrounding Orkut, the popular social networking website owned by Google, refuse to die down. With more and more users joining the network, and bringing multifarious content with them, the site is under close watch by regulators and activist groups in many parts of the world.
Despite the active advocates of freedom of speech in cyberspace, the recent incidents of vandalism of cybercafes in Mumbai, with demands that these cybercafes block out Orkut, were uncalled for and seemed politically motivated.
However, the Shiv Sena demand for blocking the website or specific content is always tenable and could be dealt with under the legal provisions available for the purpose. The question is: does blocking the complete site serve the purpose or should only offensive content be removed?
Orkut is a social networking site and helps communication among its users on its website. The growing popularity of social networking sites has been quite significant even in our country. These sites offer a platform for expression which would have otherwise found no outlet. In a way, this helps foster democracy in the cyberage.
However, the need for balanced content is essential and Orkut has laid down some minimum account restrictions. In the move to filter content, it has clearly said content violating real world laws, such as on child pornography, is illegal. Even content depicting nudity and sexually graphic material cannot be posted. Orkut has also barred hate content based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation. However, it looks into such content only when abuse is reported. After its own investigation, it removes content which it believes has promoted harmful language as well as dangerous and illegal activities, among other things. Orkut will not remove content that concerns personal attacks or defamation, shocking or distasteful imagery or language and political or social satire, unless the complainant offered a court order to that effect.
The government has also laid out the provisions for blocking websites. While the Information Technology Act, 2000, covers almost all issues of cyberspace, blocking of websites has been dealt with in a gazette notification issued on February 2003.
It has clearly laid out the steps to be followed for blocking websites. This notification is based on the premise of “balanced flow of information”. On specific complaint by some notified officers of the Union government or the state governments, the request would be entertained and then the Indian computer emergency response team (Cert-In) under the department of information technology (DIT) at the Centre would conduct the necessary enquiry, if such a step were necessary, and then communicate its decision to the licensing and regulations cell of the department of telecommunications for passing the order to the Internet service providers to block the website.
This process itself has a lot of checks and balances; so far, the track record of the government has been very good in this regard. It had refrained from blocking many such requests, including requests on YouTube in January this year, when it hosted a video posting lampooning Mahatma Gandhi doing a vulgar dance. Very recently, a public interest litigation has been admitted in the Karnataka high court on the issue of the Gandhi video.
The current controversy deals with offensive content involving Chhatrapati Shivaji in an Orkut community. This content has been there for the past few months. More recently, adverse comments have also been posted on Orkut about Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.
In the former case, the Maharashtra government had represented the Cert-In for the removal of the offensive content on more than five occasions, beginning January this year, but there has been no decision. The Maharashtra government, Cert-In and a few police officials have been recently parleying regularly with Google to ensure that it cooperates more closely with the authorities, so that management of issues surrounding controversial content could be dealt with more easily, instead of making it more prone to emotional outbursts and expressions.
This is a much better step. The fact remains that controversial expression in websites such as Orkut could fan unwanted passions, particularly, in a racially and communally sensitive country such as India, with so much diversity in place.
Less than regulatory and court intervention, it is wise on Google’s part to involve a watchdog to monitor and remove content which could be hurting communities, rather than waiting for specific complaints and allowing controversies. At the same time, there has to be restraint among the activists groups, too, because they must realize that, unlike the real world, it is easy for many people to give vent to their feelings in cyberspace.
Flow of information must be allowed and subject to criticism, rather than throttling voices in the typical fashion we see so often in which issues get politicized in our country.
Subimal Bhattacharjee writes on cybersecurity policy issues. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org