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The judges in India’s Supreme Court quoted from Willie Shakespeare’s play while striking down Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act 2000, which allowed the authorities to jail anyone putting up online messages that they (the complainants) held to be offensive. Photo: Mint
The judges in India’s Supreme Court quoted from Willie Shakespeare’s play while striking down Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act 2000, which allowed the authorities to jail anyone putting up online messages that they (the complainants) held to be offensive. Photo: Mint

Free speech is good for business too

India must protect its citizens from organized attacks on their right to free speechthere is nothing to fear from the free market of ideas

Souls taken to be dead are stirring in India, and wounds are likely speaking as tongues.

Pardon the fanciful prose but I have been inspired—nay, incited—to write those words down by a seminal judgment delivered by the Supreme Court of India this week. It is 123 pages long and pretty dull in language, as court rulings tend to be. But it springs to life in a section, where, quite unexpectedly, it quotes William Shakespeare from his play, Julius Caesar.

It’s the bit where Caesar’s friend Mark Antony delivers a short but stirring speech mourning the Roman emperor’s death by murder, and pointing to the stab wounds, wishes they could speak, essentially goading the crowd to “speak" for their leader’s wounds without actually saying so. As he ends his subliminally rabble-rousing speech, the crowd around him vows revenge, to mutiny and to burn down the homes of Caesar’s killer Brutus and other traitors.

Life follows art. In 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, inflammatory speeches by dozens of Mark Antonys spurred vengeful crowds to run around burning down Sikh homes. “When a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little," Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi said. The emergence of mass media in the 400-odd years since Shakespeare’s play and the Internet in the 31 years since Gandhi’s murder have made the world of communication vastly more complex.

Today, words of incitement can be amplified within seconds; equally, the media can help check the spread of violence and disorder, if not prevent their outbreak.

The judges in India’s Supreme Court quoted from Willie Shakespeare’s play while striking down Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act 2000, which allowed the authorities to jail anyone putting up online messages that they (the complainants) held to be offensive.

It was an oppressive piece of law, an anomaly in the world’s largest democracy—a loud and chaotic place where the freedom to express yourself is cherished very dearly. And it sat uneasily in a country where the Internet has become the motor driving business and economic growth.

You only have to look at the experience of Mouthshut.com, a product review website whose chief executive officer Faisal Farooqui was one of the petitioners against Section 66A. Consumer comments on the goods and services they purchase is what online reviews are all about. But Mouthshut.com received some 1,000 legal notices from companies that didn’t like the fact that consumers didn’t like their products.

“For some reason, the brands love to throw legal notices, lawsuits and threats to MouthShut.com. Why? We figure, the brands are threatened by the amount of truth that comes out on MouthShut against them," the company website says, under a section titled “Hall of Shame".

The Supreme Court judgement, Farooqui told me, will benefit “the entire digital ecosystem" in India.

According to a recent report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (Iamai), the Internet accounted for 3.2% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) at $60 billion in 2013. This is set to grow to 4.6% and $160 billion by 2018, comparable with many developed markets.

“Internet users will be able to use online services without fear of illegal censorship or harassment, and online businesses, ranging from established international companies to small Indian start-ups, will be able to take advantage of a more conducive business environment," Iamai said.

Of course, the market could be far bigger if the government removes foreign investment curbs on online retail.

It’s not just the digital ecosystem that stands to benefit, however. There is the whole ecosystem of rights that will be reinvigorated by the Supreme Court judgement, just when the rights of the state appear to be threatening to encroach upon individual rights.

In many respects, free speech is perhaps the most important fundamental right of them all. You could, of course, argue—as politicians tend to do—that dead men can’t talk, but it is also true without speaking out, you could be dead, or as good as.

Economist Amartya Sen’s treatise on entitlement and famine vindicates precisely this argument, showing how a free press has ensured food security in independent India.

India’s fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression, choose and practice your own religion, to be educated, to information and, ultimately, to life itself, are building blocks of the Constitution that lays down the rules and entitlements by which Indians live. Take one out, and the others fall.

I asked Farooqui, a successful entrepreneur, to articulate that link for me—the connection between free speech and business in a free market.

This is what the young businessman had to say:

“I personally feel that this whole transformation to the digital economy we are aspiring towards—we are jump-starting, having missed the manufacturing revolution—the foundation of it is free speech. Digital revolution is based on innovation and entrepreneurship."

“Innovation will happen online. Maybe not in the immediate future; but in five or seven years’ time, you will see companies like Facebook or Google that thrive on democratic values coming out of India. That was one of our (petitioners’) chief concerns. We are all aspiring towards that," he said.

“The Prime Minister says the next Google should come out of India. When we have such talent and entrepreneurs, why then are we throttling innovation with such laws which can lead to immediate arrest? When there is transparency and openness in online, businesses benefit. I am very optimistic about India’s future," he added.

Talking to Farooqui, it felt really natural to share in that sense of optimism. But there is one other important thing that India must do quickly to seal this deal.

In other thriving democracies—in North America, western Europe and Japan in Asia—the freedoms guaranteed by their Constitutions are fiercely protected by governments as much as ordinary citizens.

India, too, must protect its citizens from organized attacks on their right to free speech. There is nothing to fear from the free market of ideas.

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