The recent controversy sparked by Kapil Sibal on the need for regulating content on the Internet, especially the social networking sites, has led to a renewed debate on the subject.

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Historically, content regulation has always been contentious. Speeches, posters, publications, radio, television or more recently the Internet have always evoked strong reactions. This is primarily due to the fact that content regulation is considered a violation of the basic right of freedom of speech. This is the right on which civilizations, societies, and even governments are built and is enshrined in the basic tenets of a democracy.

It is also because of this that there is authority and power that are invoked by platforms or mediums of content dissemination and public interface. The need for regulation on this revered right was conceptualized only after there was misuse, abuse and exploitation of this right and authority. There are also other basic codes that our societies cherish, such as protecting the vulnerable, especially our children. Governments have usually used the cause of security for introducing regulation.

In India, the right to expression enshrined in our Constitution does not come freely—certain conditions or obligations are attached. So, as soon as this right infringes on other existing rights or laws, it can be checked.

For example, prevailing defamation rules, unless used within the “public interest" purview, can have serious repercussions. This was seen recently in the case of a former judge suing a television news channel for 100 crore for mistakenly showing his picture in relation to a report on a scam.

While there is sufficient ground both for and against the regulation of content, the larger question is whether it is doable or practical to regulate content in the current technology-driven complex media landscape. Related to this is the question of who will do the regulating.

Content regulation or even media regulation through a traditional regulator or government department is an outdated concept given the ecosystem. Even when there are a fixed number of players, as in the case of the current 600-odd television channels, this has been an impossible proposition. Now with the Internet, multi-source content producers are almost equal to the number of consumers, so the question of external regulation is quite irrelevant. When you try to control the Internet, it goes beyond journalism or regulating media organizations. It is the common citizen you are trying to control.

The best bet is then self-regulation of and by the citizen or the consumer of content in this case. That works in an ideal scenario of the citizen being proactive. However, in reality, awareness of laws even among producers and consumers of content is poor.

In fact, all media—print, broadcast, Internet—have to ensure that their content is not illegal, harmful or offensive as per the law of the country and community standards. In practice, however, like most laws in our country, the implementation and enforcement of various laws applicable to content are quite weak.

Traditionally, across the world, independent regulators address issues of standards and deal with complaints that arise in the subjective interpretation of content. But even these paradigms are now moving towards more liberal models of co-regulation—a midway between self-regulation and traditional regulation. The prime benefits of co-regulation are the expertise offered by specialized industry-based organizations and a detached regulatory organization with a clear system of legal backing and accountability.

Of course, we have the other extreme example of China, where all content is filtered and heavily monitored—but that is not possible or even desirable in our democratic society.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

Also Read |PN Vasanti’s earlier articles