Censorship by mob rule

Censorship by mob rule

Multinationals such as Google adapt to the country they operate in. In China, that means following Communist Party diktat about what to publish and restrict. In India, it’s a different kind of diktat. A Monday article in The Wall Street Journal, which this newspaper carried, describes how Google has started censoring itself.

For instance, after the death of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S.R. Reddy in September, it deleted offensive material off its social networking site, Orkut, lest it incite YSR loyalists. That’s the truth Western firms expanding local operations are coming to terms with: Even in India’s vibrant democracy, mob rule can limit free speech.

In the annals of democratic history, this isn’t new. Last weekend, a Somali Muslim attacked Kurt Westergaard, the artist who had sketched the most controversial of the Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad that provoked riots across the Muslim world in 2005. This controversy continues to hold the West hostage: In September, Yale University Press published a book, The cartoons that shook the world, but refused to print the original cartoon images—fearing the mob violence it may incite.

This fear is perhaps more commonplace in India (given history), but it takes on a new dimension in the Internet age. Earlier, such publication could be left to the discretion of a newspaper editor. That’s disappeared in a world where anyone can blog. Which brings Internet companies in the line of fire.

Google and Yahoo may not be strangers to censorship. However, instead of confronting the tyranny of a few bureaucrats in China, they encounter the tyranny of the majority in India. Here mobs can sometimes get what they want by just appearing on the streets.

When compared with dictators, the tempers of mobs have the same chilling effects on free speech, but they are harder to restrict. After all, they claim to speak for the majority in a system that’s already majoritarian, crowding out unpopular opinions, no matter what their worth.

The antidote involves both a constitutional framework that enshrines freedoms—one that allows ideological minorities to speak up—and a rule of law that implements it. India has the former in theory. But, thanks to a lack of will and ability, it seems to sorely lacks the latter in practice.

Can democratic majorities be a threat to free speech? Tell us at views@livemint.com