New Delhi: “We are wedded to freedom of expression, and shall do nothing to diminish that freedom,” said Kapil Sibal, minister for communications and information technology, speaking at the first Google Big Tent gathering that took place in New Delhi today.
In the past, at stakeholder meetings to discuss the Information Technology (IT) Act, Sibal has stated that while Internet freedoms are important, it’s critical that the government be able to control the content available, for reasons such as national security and communal harmony, and this was something he hinted at again while speaking on Thursday.
“We are great believers in the idea that the Internet can help bring justice, but justice varies from place to place across the world,” he said.
He also suggested that Internet businesses must be responsible for controlling content, and said, “Internet governance is an oxymoron. The Internet must govern itself. But you can’t play cricket without any rules.”
This is a major area of concern for Indian Internet users and at the heart of the debate around free speech in India, an issue which gained a lot of momentum in 2012 as the government tried to restrict access to more than 100 websites with little or no justification.
India, even with a dismal 10% Internet penetration, is the third largest Internet market in the world. “While the Internet is important for us, India is also necessary for the Internet with its 1.2 billion population,” Sibal said.
The government is taking various measures to improve Internet connectivity, including laying fibre optic networks across states, making devices affordable, and working towards a policy that will bring about a digital transformation in the country, the minister said.
Google Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt also spoke at the Big Tent and talked about the ways in which the Internet could affect the country.
“You could solve education with the Internet,” he said. “All these people who have not been served in the past, you could send them their lessons and educate them, through mobile devices. Corruption, which is a problem in many countries, would also be addressed, by making everything online, with a record, and more transparent.”
He added that India is already making progress with mobile banking, in conjunction with the Unique Identity (UID) project. At the same time, Schmidt also admitted that there was a dark side to the increased connectivity. “You have to fight for your privacy, or lose it,” he said. “You have to ensure that your laws respect this.”
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi said that the Internet was reshaping politics, in his address via videoconference. “New media was quickly adopted by politicians. It was a powerful tool to broadcast your views, and new technologies were shaped by politics.”
However, the two-way nature of the Internet is changing the way in which politicians can use technology, he said. “Today, people don’t interact with politics once every five years, but every day. Technology has merged politics and governance today.”
Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah and minister of state for human resource development Shashi Tharoor also spoke during one of the segments at the event, both agreeing that there needs to be a line between freedom of speech and the public good.
Reacting to a question that access to the Internet was banned in the aftermath of Afzal Guru’s execution, Abdullah said, “We didn’t ban Internet access… But bandwith was a little slow.”
Tharoor also pointed out that while Internet penetration is still too low to make it an electioneering tool, it is relevant for amplifying communication through the mass media, and also for malicious users.
At the same time, he did admit that there were some problems with the existing laws in India. “I don’t like section 66A and I don’t think that a junior sub-inspector should be able to arrest someone for making a Facebook post.”
Section 66A of the IT Act, which criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience” online or electronically, has been criticised by rights advocates as being too vague and subject to interpretation.