In the past few years, although India has been ranked among the top three nations by number of Internet users and second only to the US in Facebook users, there has also been an increasing number of not-so-healthy reactions from the government and politicians to postings on social media websites. The authorities have arrested citizens for making remarks on Facebook and Twitter. Headlines regarding India are rising on indexoncensorship.org, which tracks freedom of expression and censorship issues.
With the Internet hosting a large community worldwide, there is no one government that rules it. While real life is in many ways different from the virtual world, the latter is continuously evolving to emulate the former, so much so that real people are becoming more active, vocal and participative in the virtual world.
With the emergence of the Internet, the real difference for this new medium is that it is largely user-generated in terms of content, opinion and participation. For example, in real life, I don’t think I can have all my 2,000 plus friends on Facebook talk to me at a time, or comment on my thoughts, or every activity or photo I post. But in virtual life, I can show them, get their comments and even share them with their friend circles.
Further, if I like or dislike a public figure, celebrity, politician or cleric, I may share that only with a closed group of friends, family members or in a seminar or a conference. But in virtual life, if I do the same, all my friends see it if I am on a social media site and the same could have a ripple effect of liking and disliking or further discussion.
The critical difference between life before Internet and social media and after is that we have been slowly entering into the era of user-generated content, where everybody has a voice and opinion, and a medium to put it across. History has shown that while people change according to time and with speed, governments, authorities and institutions do not do so easily. They will take their time and depending upon communities, societies, geographies, race and economies, they may change smoothly or reluctantly or violently.
According to the 2012 Freedom on the Internet report, “Responding to the rise of user-generated content, governments around the world are introducing new laws that regulate online speech and prescribe penalties for those found to be in violation of the established rules. The threat in many countries comes from laws that are ostensibly designed to protect national security or citizens from cyber crime but which are so broadly worded that they can easily be turned on political opponents.”
The report identifies “a shifting set of tactics used by various governments to control the free flow of information online. While blocking and filtering remain the preferred methods of restriction in many of the states examined, a growing set of countries have chosen other tools to limit political and social speech that they view as undesirable. These alternative tactics include (1) introduction of vague laws that prohibit certain types of content, (2) proactive manipulation, (3) physical attacks against bloggers and other Internet users, and, (4) politically motivated surveillance”.
Sadly, India has been categorized by the report as one of those few countries that have passed new laws in the last one year that negatively impact freedom on the Internet. Some of the other countries are Argentina, China, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Thailand and Vietnam. The report, however, analyses that the curb on the Internet could be categorized in three broad parameters: blockers, non-blockers and nascent blockers. India does not fall in any of these three categories.
I only hope that the government goes for a serious capacity-building exercise to train and make its officials aware of the nuances of the virtual world, especially Facebook and other social media platforms. Otherwise, we will keep hearing the news of individual harassment because of digitally illiterate government officials. Although communications minister Kapil Sibal said on TV channels that there is nothing wrong with the laws, it’s the police and government officials who are making the mistake of not interpreting them properly.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan Award. He is member of a working group on internet proliferation and governance at the ministry of communications and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar