Why censorship cannot be selective, especially on the Internet

The Union Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal definitely bit more than he could chew when he peremptorily demanded that content on popular websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube must be reviewed before it appears online. He actually suggested that dedicated employees of these websites must individually go through each post, review it, and let it be published only after approval according to the guidelines provided by the government.

Deservedly, #IdiotKapilSibal or something of that nature was one of the hot trends on various blogs and social networking websites. Deservedly, because being the Telecom minister he should know that, given the amount of information generated on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, it is not, with current technology, humanly possible to go through each post before it is published, because millions of updates are posted every day. These guys still seem to be living in the 80s when government babus and politicians decided what people should know and what they should say. They don’t realize that the Internet is a communication and information juggernaut that cannot be controlled by a single government or a single agency.

Can it be controlled? Sure it can be, but then multiple countries will have to come together and take collective measures.

But that’s not the point. The point is, censorship can never be selective. Kapil Sibal says he never meant to censor all of the Internet, he just wants “objectionable” content to be removed from these websites. What’s objectionable? Anything, according to him and his supporters, that can incite communal violence and social unrest. But according to the Congress the Anna Hazare movement was a sign of social unrest. Would it want its online presence removed, such as Twitter accounts and Facebook pages?

Even among the so-called intellectuals there is lots of confusion and obfuscation regarding what can be deemed as objectionable. On a TV debate yesterday on the same issue Suhail Seth first supported the stand of the government saying that content that can cause communal and religious strife must be removed or censored, and then in the same sentence he lamented the fact that MF Hussein paintings depicting naked Hindu gods in various awkward positions cannot be displayed publicly. So why cannot works of “art” that a certain community finds obnoxious be removed from public view when objectionable content should be removed from the Internet? Who decides that your work is art and freedom of expression and mine is an incitement?

Of course there is tons of objectionable content on the Internet and some of it can make you puke instantly, but there is one thing people don’t understand. The Internet is not the conventional “media”. It is just like the real world, but existing digitally. It is a parallel world. Just like in the real world there are good things and bad things and we have to take the both, the similar is the case with the Internet. You have social groups, you can hold interactions and meetings, you can post content, you can react to the content being posted, you can hold protests, you can organize campaigns, you can virtually visit different parts of the world, you can be exposed to various new ideas and ideologies, you can meet new people from all parts of the world, and you can obtain information that would have been available to you so easily had the Internet not been there. Just like the real world, there are good people and there are bad people. And in fact, there is greater restraint on the Internet compared to the normal world because it is actually in your hand what you want to see and what you want to propagate.

The supporters of Internet censorship say that something really vile and revolting can go viral and hurt certain communities. First of all, lots of content has gone viral on the Internet and up till now there has been not even a single instance of something hateful and obnoxious going viral. People don’t forward or repost videos and images that can hurt religious sentiments. Of course there are lots of videos and images lampooning our “esteemed” politicians that sometimes go viral, but then who says that our politicians must be kept on a pedestal and be treated like holy cows? Why is it blasphemous to show Manmohan Singh dancing with Sonia Gandhi in a morphed image taken from Dirty Picture?

Should people like Kapil Sibal and his cronies be taken seriously? They should be, because these people run the government and they are actually in a position to cause grave injury to our democracy and freedom of expression. Even if they cannot curtail the Internet and implement censorship in a degree they want, their mentality is quite dangerous and this is not a new manifestation. Remember that it was the Congress that imposed the Emergency. It was the Congress that tried to curb the freedom of the press through the Press Bill. In the early 2000s as soon as it came to power it tried to block popular blogging services so that people could not express their opinions. So this is a party that nurtures Draconian proclivities, so definitely such pronunciations must be taken seriously and people must protest as vocally as possible. In the guise of censoring objectionable content they want to throttle your freedom of expression and the only outlet you have got – the Internet.

Their hatred for freedom of expression also emanates from the fact that most of the Indians are lowly creatures, perpetually wallowing in the “mai-baap” mentality and how dare they speak up against the Almighty ministers? I think that is the biggest issue, not some security threat or a possibility of communal violence that is nothing but balderdash.

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