Category Archives: Internet

A very thin line separates right from wrong

The debate on the Internet freedom, especially right to express dissent using technologies such as Twitter, has been beaten to pulp. Nonetheless, it is a lively issue with as many opinions as there are people using such media.

Everybody is aware of the recent spate of blocking many Twitter users such as @kanchangupta and @barbarindian (just to mention a few, you can get a more comprehensive list here) and some of the accounts still remain inaccessible (although you can access them via third-party Twitter clients).

There have been sharp differences between people who endorse a certain degree of restraint and censorship and people who demand complete freedom of expression, even if it means throwing vituperations and vilest of abuses upon individuals of contradictory ideologies and beliefs. The latest is this article written by Sagarika Ghosh. She says:

A deluge of profane language, abuse of religious icons and vicious attacks on minorities are the hallmarks of Twitter and Facebook in India. Twitter in India, almost completely dominated by right-wing religious nationalism, has been called a “hate factory”, a forum to vent foul-mouthed loathing not only of public figures but of minorities and those perceived as ‘pseudo-secular’ or ‘sickular’. The role of rumour in a riot has been established by many historians. The role of creating the religious ‘enemy’ is another potent force in creating religious polarisation. If social media becomes a tool in the hand of a communal rioter, then the government has every right to enforce the law, and absolute freedom must take second place to protection of life and liberty.

Although as usual, she has used her article to portray minority communities as targets of the majority community, all in all, there is some merit to what she is saying. Sometimes there is madness out there. The kind of language people use will simply appall you and you will wonder, “Do normal people really talk this way in real life?”

To put the point across, she cites some examples from the dose of insulting Tweets she often gets:

As a television journalist, I get a daily dose of abuse on Twitter, an exercise in character-building endurance. Some examples: “Bitch, you deserve to be stripped and raped publicly.” “Randi ki aulad maadar…. why u r not covering assam riots, mulloh ne ma ch..i hai kya behan….. Dalli saali Rahul ki.”

Although I’m not justifying use of such language, one needs to see the picture in its entirety. I know this is very bad language and I would not like somebody from my family even to read this, but why do particular journalists and public figures attract such attention? Is it just because what they think, or there is more to that?

On the Internet, some people are attacked just for having a difference of opinion. For instance there was a massive hate campaign against Anita Sarkeesian for inveighing against rampant sexism on the Internet in general and videogames in particular. Compared to the attack on Anita and many more individuals in the West, what happens in India is kids stuff.

But people like Sagarika Ghosh and Barkha Dutt are attacked less for the opinions and ideologies they hold and more for what they are seen as: agents and pimps (to use the language used by the dissenters) of Congress. There is plenty of evidence on the Internet as well as elsewhere that these journalists often manipulate reality to mould it in the favour of Congress.

The abuses are also a manifestation of the anger that hasn’t been allowed to vent out over the past six decades. Since independence Hindus have always had to justify their existence and their way of life. They always have to carry out their activities in the context of the minority population, especially Muslims. The journalists of such ilk and the politicians (especially Congress and its supporting parties) openly flaunt their communal inclinations to sustain a formidable vote bank. They know that the Hindu society is divided into various castes and classes and they are never going to (at least in the foreseeable future) consolidate into a strong vote bank.

Hence it is a well-entrenched conspiracy to keep the Hindu vote divided and the minorities vote in a constant state of peril. Since minorities, especially Muslims, are always kept on the edge, it is like a tinderbox. Even small scuffles between two individuals escalate into massive riots due to these machinations. Before the Internet, two things acted in the favour of Congress and its cohorts: total control over the means of communication and information dissemination and a total twisting of historical facts with correct facts known only to a few individuals who couldn’t access publishing and electronic media.

The Internet completely changed the game. Since it can be accessed by everybody, everybody can become a publisher as well as an information consumer. More importantly, dissemination of information lies in the hands of common folks and not conventional media, which could easily be manipulated or curtailed prior to the arrival of the Internet.

Now what happens is, as soon as somebody tries to spread misinformation or sow the seeds of bunkum, he or she is immediately taken to task by people who know the real thing. Also, previously people would say anything without caring whether they were right or wrong. This no longer remains possible when there are a couple of hundred people to point out your stupidity and lack of knowledge.

So even before Twitter, these people were, sort of villains. Previously they were ensconced within their respective ivory towers. When they started using Twitter, they thought people will always be in awe and hence grateful that these high-and-mighty interacting with hoi polloi. Totally opposite happened. We all know what I mean by that.

Yes, people get carried away and sometimes they say really obnoxious things. But the point is, it also happens in the real world. If somebody abuses you on the road you can either abuse back and even beat up that person (if you don’t have to fear retaliation) or you can lodge an FIR.

Sagarika Ghosh compares Twitter to a busy highway, although I often like to compare it to a meeting place where people come together, propagate ideas, express dissent and spread information. Till then, it is good. But what happens if people start using abusive language? Abuse happens. Religious and communal abuse also happens although it is not unique to a single community. I have also seen people having Muslim and Christian handles broadcasting all sorts of hateful messages. Can this lead to social unrest on the streets?

It hasn’t been proven directly. The recent controversy over blockage originated from the riots in Assam over illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Social media had nothing to do with that.

The unrest in Mumbai where a few thousand Muslims had gathered to protest against “atrocities” on Muslims in Assam and Burma was also not triggered by Twitter. Yes, there was some inflammatory material on websites and that material was used by local newspapers to instigate people. But there is no direct evidence that social media contributed to the state of unrest the country recently witnessed.

Even the mass exodus of the people from the north-east from various metropolitan cities was triggered by an SMS campaign and this again, had nothing to do with social media.

Nonetheless, abundant vile manifests on Twitter. How to deal with it? The first option is blocking those people. It is same as moving away from a place where people are hurling abuses at you. But sometimes you feel, this is not fair. I mean, if a person abuses me simply because I don’t agree with him, I would like to get back at him. I cannot abuse him back because that is not my style. Get him blocked? This is an option, but such blocking coming from the government can be a dangerous game. We saw what happened this time. In the name of curtailing hate speech and rumor mongering, even those Twitter accounts that were never known for broadcasting hate speech were blocked simply because they continuously questioned the government’s policies vis-a-vis economy and communal dynamics. These handles also thwarted misinformation campaigns launched by various journalists known to be close to the current government. The blocking campaign was so obvious that people were directly taking names.

So in such an environment, how can we believe laws that are intended to restrict hate speech and abuses? There are two problems here:

  1. How do you define “hate speech”?
  2. How do you define “abuses”?

Simply because I’m pointing out faults in a particular religion doesn’t mean that I am indulging in hate speech but fanatics from that religion may construe it that way. Even the government, inclined towards appeasing a particular minority group may block me simply for having an opinion about a particular religion. Journalists and intellectuals may report me to the concerned government agencies for doing some plain speak. So this can turn into a dangerous trend.

Having said that, social media being an integral part of the mainstream these days, we do need a mechanism to curtail vicious individuals hailing from various religions and communities. People from Facebook and Twitter – contemporary popular social networking platforms – will have to arrive at a consensus, just as everybody agrees that there should be a zero tolerance policy for child pornography. It may take some time but eventually we will need the mechanism to control hate speech – real hate speech – and abusive of people. You can’t call me a “whore” simply because I don’t think the way you do. I would like to report you, I would like to make sure that the medium that you are abusing is denied to you. Of course, censoring is not the solution.

Something self-regulatory like Wikipedia?

Is the government trying to create an Orwellian world?

Internet censorship in India

Remember Nineteen Eighty-Four? Not the anti-Sikh riots but the book written by George Orwell?

In that book the government controls and monitors your every action, your every thought, and every aspect of your life. Everywhere there are human and technological spies monitoring whatever you do.

The same thing seems to be happening with the latest effort of the government to monitor content on the Internet on the basis of what is “objectionable”, “defamatory”, or whatever label the so-called government is uncomfortable with.

To be frank, the Internet scares the shit out of them, especially after WikiLeaks, the unshackled conversations over Twitter and Facebook and social networking-supported civic unrests. And it’s not just the government; all the agencies, may it be bureaucracy, the conventional mainstream media and the old school businesses that thrive on people’s inability to communicate with each other, would like to throttle the free flow of information on the Internet. Precisely this is the reason why there is no hue and cry on TV channels on the government’s new censorship drive.

Wondering what’s the big deal?

According to the new Information Technology Guidelines notified by the government

  • Your Internet service provider must store your every online activity-related data that the government agencies can access any time without notification or without you ever knowing it
  • All your private conversations via e-mail and Skype (and communications via other platforms) will be accessible to the government agencies
  • All your private photographs and messages will be available to the babus
  • If your content on your blog or Facebook or anywhere else is found “objectionable” it has to be taken down within 36 hours
  • Anyone can say that your content is “defamatory” and get it removed from the World Wide Web
  • Your every tweet, every Facebook post, every video, every search on Google (and other search engines), everything is going to be monitored

The government has invested Rs. 450 crores (yes, your money) to track the undersea cables for encrypted data and more than 53 modules have already been established. It means, while I’m typing this blog post, this might already be monitored and I may have to take it down in case some nut case finds it objectionable.

This is not just an India specific problem. In the name of SOPA there are efforts also in the USA to censor the Internet and many of the Arabian countries have already convinced the rest of the world why the Internet is to be censored.

The Internet censorship is more nefarious compared to  the usual censorship because no media has impacted the world as the Internet. It is now cliched, but had Facebook been a country, it would have been the third most populated country in the world, so you can very well imagine why even the biggest governments feel sort of powerless in front of its reach. Another problem (from the control freak government’s point of view) is that you no longer have to depend on computers and laptops in order to access the Internet and social networking applications. You can interact on Twitter and Facebook even from cheapest mobile phones these days. You can even post blog posts from your smart phones. It hardly takes a few seconds for the news to spread across the country, whether you are in a train, in a bus, having lunch, having a poop, or whatever you are doing. Hence, the zeal to control it, to censor it, to severe its most important vein — freedom of expression.

Can you stop it?

You can only stop it with collective effort. Make it more damaging for the government to censor the Internet. In India it might be difficult because there is just a small portion of the population that is active on the Internet and it might not be a vote bank but were it so insignificant, why would the government try to choke it? It certainly feels threatened. It certainly has an impact.

To begin with, you can sign this online petition against the government’s new diktat. You can also approach your local MPs and MLAs and your representatives and convey to them what you think of this censorship drive (realistically, I’m not too optimistic of this approach).

Write against it on your blog. In fact, I’m going to link from this blog post to all the blog posts and articles written on this subject.

Create online forums to discuss the matter.

I mean, do whatever you want to do, but do something. Once the damage is done, it will be nearly impossible to undo it.

Related reading

 

The new Twitter censorship policy might not be as bad as it looks

There is lots of buzz on the Internet regarding the recent announcement by Twitter that it would be blocking certain tweets in certain countries, although the same tweets will be available in the countries outside of the jurisdiction of those countries wanting to block that particular content.

In the beginning, as soon as I came across this news my first reaction was, “Whattha…” but then I did some reading on the issue and found myself agreeing to many commentators who, although cautiously, understand Twitter’s point of view and deem the development not as bad as it sounds.

The thing is, we don’t live in a Utopian world where freedom of expression and speech is available unshackled. It is not. While tapping on your keyboard, writing for your blog or for Twitter (or Facebook, or for that matter any publishing platform on the Internet) you may take your right to express yourself for granted, but your freedom ends where another’s discomfort begins, and this discomfort can be anything – political, social, ideological or religious.

In the current scenario the governments can block Twitter completely and this doesn’t work good for anybody. Countries like China can block Twitter for just a single tweet. There are many media companies that remove the content from their servers and it is available nowhere in the world. This is the worst case scenario.

Although it is a cyber platform, it works and operates in the real world. Also, it is not a non-profit entity. Somewhere down the line Twitter needs to earn money and it will be earning money via its presence in various countries, and when it plans to have presence in various countries it needs to comply with local jurisdictions whether one likes it or not.

While trying to comply with the local laws Twitter has very carefully drafted its censorship policy and has made censoring content a bit difficult. Particular tweets, while blocked in a country whose government wants them blocked, will be available to the rest of the world and you will also be notified when those tweets are blocked. At Twitter help Center they say:

Many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.

We have found that transparency is vital to freedom of expression. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, unless we are legally prohibited from doing so, and clearly indicate to viewers when content has been withheld. We have also expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to include the publication of requests to withhold content in addition to the DMCA notifications that we already transmit.

I think this is a clever thing to do. The governments will have to follow procedures in order to block particular tweets. The same governments will not have an excuse to block entire Twitter at the drop of a hat. Twitter can always say, look, we’re complying with your local laws so you cannot block us.

The good thing is the transparency factor and also a clever way of keeping the content visible in the regions where the local laws are not applicable. Transparency in the sense that the content that is blocked will be marked as blocked content and as mentioned in the above quoted text from Twitter, all the requests to withhold content by particular governments will be listed at the Chilling Effects website.

Since all the Internet companies have to operate in the real world, they have to follow the real jurisdictions. Perhaps one day we will have utopia and the cyber world will be totally different from the real world, but right now everything boils down to the real world, where we all have to operate. Twitter is trying to comply with local laws as well as allowing free flow of information wherever it is possible. So far, it sounds fair.

Internet Hindus and why so much talk about them

A lot of concern is being expressed by secular-minded people regarding the dominance of a tribe called the “Internet Hindus”, a term allegedly coined by Sagarika Ghosh, an Indian TV journalist. Internet Hindus can mostly be found on social networking websites like Twitter and FaceBook, and they’re also quite vocal on various the so-called “right wing” blogs. This Mid-Day article is one of the examples of the ongoing Internet Hindus fear wave.

The Indian mainstream media has so far been dominated by a particular section of people who normally call themselves the “elites” and the seculars. They pretend to control the thought machine of the country. They define what’s secular and what’s democratic. To deepen and strengthen their ideology they copiously publish books, conduct seminars and talk shows and publish scholastic essays and papers. I’m not saying they’re good or bad — it’s just that they totally steer the thought process of a massive literate section of the country. They control the newspapers, magazines and the electronic media.

The Internet on the other hand, due to its neutral functioning, is available to everybody. You can start publishing a new blog even while reading this blog post. You can open a new Twitter or FaceBook account and unleash your thoughts among your followers, friends and fans, provided you can create a presence for yourself. This is just the beginning.

The real advantage is, your friends, fans and followers can talk back to you, and in response, they can start their own streams of conversation through their own blogs and social networking accounts. Conversation and communication on the Internet cannot be controlled. Discussions and debates are no longer elite pass times. Whether you have 2 readers, 200, 2000 or more, you command a degree of influence. The people who so far have been controlling the thought process of the country get rattled by this new trend. They’ve been caught off guard. Everybody can communicate now, so they can no longer control ideas and opinions. Consequently, their only response is, name calling. It’s like, when you start drowning you start flailing your arms and legs even when it does you more harm than good.

Coming back to Internet Hindus

So why many feel the Internet Hindus have a strong hold over the Internet? Because this is a medium that allows you to communicate unhindered. I’ve personally experienced that these so-called Internet Hindus at least have a real notion of what they are saying — whether good or bad — and those who oppose them either do so due to the herd mentality or they belong to the above-mentioned class. Internet Hindus are there because communication and thought process is so lopsided in our country. The same people who lament the right wing thoughts on the Internet conveniently keep mum when people like Arundhati Roy romanticize the Maoist murder sprees or bomb attacks. The same people who start screaming “Hindu fundamentalists” at the drop of a hat start presenting copious excuses or creating sob-dramas when Muslim terrorists attack (there, now I’m an Islamophobe, you see?). Remember the Chaddhi campaign? Why isn’t there a single such campaign against, let’s say, the Owaisi brothers of Hyderabad? I’m not against such campaigns, in fact they should be encouraged, but why just one-sided? You need to see the pattern.

Hence, the Internet Hindus. They’re sort of a backlash. They’re a collective WTF. It’s not a communal threat, it’s just a beginning of thought-backlash. Something like, you think that? But we think this. It doesn’t mean they are Muslim haters. In fact such thoughts are often seeded by the other group, the so-called secular and elite people. They make it as if, each time you say something in defense of the Hindus, you become a Muslim hater, or a Christian hater, and on top of that you are a Dalit hater too.

And why are most Internet Hindus anonymous? Free thought is actually not free in our country, it comes packaged with dangers and backlashes. There is a section that wants to be vocal without revealing its identity, because these people are normal folks going to offices and earning decent livings. They don’t want their jobs and careers jeopardized, but at the same time, they have a need to show how angry and frustrated they feel. Besides, the more important thing is the thought, the opinion, not who originates it.

Personally I’m happy that there are Internet Hindus heavily active on Twitter and FaceBook. Let there be Internet Sardars and Internet Dalits and Internet Every-other-community that needs to be heard.

Is it really a revolution on Twitter?

The world of social media is agog with the way the Iranian protestors are using Twitter to send streams of updates from various locations. Some have even gone to an extent of calling it a revolution. On the other hand, social media experts like Gaurav Mishra say that more than a tool to trigger a revolution, Twitter is acting as a medium to organize meets and disseminate related information all over the world. But the importance of Twitter can be gauged from the fact that many from Iran protested when Twitter had to shut down its services due to scheduled maintenance, and there was so much pressure from Iranian Twitter users that the company decided to postpone the maintenance schedule. Twitter users like @StopAhmadi have been featured in Washing Post and New York Times. In fact, according to another buzz, it was the US government that requested Twitter to postpone the scheduled shutdown so that the Iranians could keep on interacting with the international audience at this critical juncture. This NYTimes.com article says:

The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.

“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’ ” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

I feel Twitter is a great empowerer. In just a few words, less than 140 characters to be precise, your message can reach thousands, and even millions of people, and for that you don’t even need thousands of followers. You just need some people who will be eager to retweet your message to their followers. Remember that American student who was arrested in Egypt and he sent a tweet about his arrest from his mobile phone and the news spread like wildfire? There was so much diplomatic pressure that the Egyptian government had to release him. No news agency or media house could have achieved that so fast.

The use of social media tools seems disorganized sometimes, but I think this is the beauty of it. I would love to see NGO’s and activists in India using Twitter to gather and spread information and awareness. Even the normal public. Not just to update your friends on what you have for breakfast or what film you just watched, but also updates on what government officer is demanding bribe, what police person is misbehaving, who is eve teasing a girl at the bus stop, etc. The greatest power, of course, will come from people transmitting Twitter streams from their mobile phones, from rural and far flung areas.