All freedoms—speech, press, religion—come to nought if they are ring-fenced by an externally imposed sense of limitations. There is no such thing as 80% freedom of speech. Either you enjoy the freedom or you don’t.
So when Kapil Sibal says that the government will take steps to curb “incendiary content” on the Internet, there is no ambiguity—this is a violation of our freedom. And this violation becomes more blatant when he asks service providers such as Google, Facebook and Orkut to not just remove objectionable content, but also screen all content before it is posted. The New York Times reported that Sibal wants this screening to be done not by the software, but by human beings.
First of all, this reflects a laughable ignorance about how the Internet works. Laughable, that is, if the demand was not from a minister who handles the human resource development and information technology portfolios, and was once the minister for science and technology. In Sibal’s case, he should know better.
The reasoning put forth by Sibal and a smattering of supporters—mostly politicians on social networks—is that the objectionable and offensive content on networks may hurt the sentiments of individuals and communities.
There is no doubt that free speech can and often will be offensive. Individual and community sentiments will be hurt. But that is not a failure of free speech, it is a feature of it. Human beings regularly find each other repugnant and say as much.
The problem, and one that Sibal should know well, is that most individuals and communities don’t believe they have a realistic chance of getting legal recourse if they find themselves vilified.
The legal system in this country has a reputation for astonishing delay. So what options do someone genuinely subject to hate speech have?
It will not be surprising if Sibal’s move has widespread popular support. The joys of free expression are easily trumped by the outrage of perceived indignation.
When you have a dysfunctional cure, you tend to get fanatically preventive.
Does the move to curb online content violate the freedom of expression? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org