Kapil Sibal, the telecom minister, may insist that his government is not interested in censorship and is in fact merely seeking ‘self-regulation’ from service providers such as Google and Facebook. But the nomenclature is irrelevant and the outcry over the government’s latest bit of paternalistic behavior indicates that no-one is under any illusions as to what Sibal’s proposal really means. His attempt to create a patina of respectability for what is an ultimately outrageous gag order is fooling nobody.
Reports suggest that the government asked internet companies such as Facebook and Google to screen user content from India to check for defamatory or inflammatory content that could be considered offensive. Apparently a Facebook page maligning Congress president Sonia Gandhi brought forth this reaction. The likes of Facebook and Google, who do not actually own the content their users post, are considered to be intermediaries who merely provide a platform for users to post their pictures, blogs, comments and other content. They are not content creators and therefore argue, quite rightly, that they cannot be held responsible for the content they host – to hold them liable for that content would be like holding the post office responsible for hate mail.
These service providers have mechanisms to receive takedown requests from various parties, be they governments, copyright holders or citizen groups. They evaluate takedown requests and either remove the offending material or leave it up, depending on whether the content is deemed to be violating local laws. Given the volume of information that is constantly uploaded online, it would be next to impossible for Facebook or Google to have human beings monitor everything before it hits the internet, which means that to comply with what Sibal wants them to do, these companies would have to create filters (which would hardly be infallible) that would automatically prevent some content from being uploaded – much like what Google and other internet services were (and are) doing in China to comply with that country’s draconian regulation of the internet.
Telecom minister Kapil Sibal addresses a press conference in New Delhi. AP
Unfortunately, the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008, passed without debate in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, is broadly framed enough to allow the government to make such demands. The Act allows the government to block access to any website that contravenes “national interest”, and employees at domestic and international internet companies can be held accountable for failing to uphold “public order, decency or morality”, none of which are exactly well-defined, and under which the responsibility to determine offensive content should not lie with internet intermediaries. Google, for instance, is in no position to decide if Degas’ nudes are obscene; that is something that should be figured out in a court of law.
This sort of nannying by the state is hardly new, however. It is clear that the government is unconvinced that the adults that vote it into power are capable of choosing for themselves whether they want to watch or read something if it offends them. Already, the government’s establishment of a broadcast complaints council has led to massive self-regulation on the part of various television channels, who now bleep out curse words and references to sex while chopping chunks of movies and serials that don’t conform with Victorian morality. Now the government wants internet companies to do the same — only in this case, the censorship will be far more wide-ranging since just about anything on the web is bound to be offensive to someone. This, at a time when the transformative power of the internet is being celebrated across the world after the Arab Spring! Surely the danger in what Sibal is proposing is clear to the government? But perhaps it is not so surprising after all that the Indian government might be running scared at the potential power held by internet users. Most likely the government would much rather still be lovingly guiding us through domestic and international events in easily digestible tidbits via Doordarshan.