Out of the frying pan and into the fire. The UPA government has made it something of a fine art. Hardly had the ruckus over the decision to open up the retail sector to FDI died down than IT and communications minister Kapil Sibal unleashed another storm. A New York Times blogpost last fortnight revealed that the Indian government has been trying for some time now to get representatives of firms like Google and Facebook to remove “offensive” content from their sites.
It relates to material, the government says, that could be exploited to foment religious riots. “We are seeking their cooperation, and if somebody is not willing to cooperate on incendiary material, it is the duty of government to think of steps that we need to take,” Sibal said at a press conference called hurriedly on December 6, the morning after the revelations.
Gulshan Rai, director general of CERT-In, India’s key internet monitor, voices another ‘official’ view. Companies like Google and Facebook, he thinks, are just using the freedom of expression clause as a ruse. “They remove links related to child pornography and pre-natal sex selection, don’t they? The real reason they are refusing to take such content off is because they generate hits and revenue,” he says. The government’s suggestion is just an attempt to get these firms to self-regulate. “They aren’t doing so currently,” says Rai. He claims he receives several complaints but has no time to trawl through hundreds of millions of pages on the net.
Few, though, are buying the government’s argument that content on social media is about to incite communal violence in any real sense. Nivedita Menon, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and an active commentator on the blog Kafila, doesn’t hold back her punches. “The Congress always uses the cover of communal violence when it actually wants to consolidate its fragmented support,” she says. “There are some serious independent Left voices online that express dissent to government policy, such as Sanhati, Kafila et al—that voice is the real target.”
That political criticism, indeed even puerile cartoons, is what has got the government’s goat is evident from Google’s transparency report, a periodic list of censorship requests from governments. Between January and June this year, when Anna’s campaign was gathering online steam, the Indian government asked Google to snip as many as 358 items from its sites. Of these, 255 requests fell not under hate speech or defamation, but under Google’s “government criticism” category. Would the government still have us believe that its attempt to regulate online content is an attempt to stem religious riots?
Many who use the open, liberal space of the internet are warning how India could find itself on a slippery undemocratic slope if varying offended constituencies are appeased one after another. “Offensive and abusive are very vague terms,” says Rahul Roushan, founder-cum-editor, Faking News, a leading satire site in India. “I can’t file an FIR against a person who abuses me verbally. When we can’t censor people in the real world, why are we losing sleep over trying to censor online content?”
Pre-Screen This: Sibal Rants About Online Abuse
What About Offline Violence On Our Screens?
While many are concerned about the impending censorship, an equal number think any shot at effectively regulating cyberspace is doomed to fail. What if an offensive site is hosted on a server located outside India, something that exempts it from Indian legal jurisdiction? Any attempt at blocking the IP address of a savvy enough site will inevitably result in mirror sites or clones, set up on different IP addresses. This was best demonstrated by those who helped Wikileaks survive despite coordinated attempts, including by the US government, to bring it down. Besides, any blogger persecuted by the state is likely to become a hero, like Razan Ghazzawi did in Syria. Such censorship will also end up placing India in an embarrassing league of internet predators like China and Iran.
Lage raho, Munnabhai! Protests outside Sibal’s residence. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook, December 19, 2011)
“If you get rid of sites that say bad things about you today, tomorrow there will be another 100 sites saying bad things about you. This is not because they want to but simply because you shut down the ones that said it in the first place,” says a well-known parodist who writes under the pseudonym of Fake Jhunjhunwala. And what pre-empts riots from breaking out if some loony American pastor posts blasphemous stuff on a little known site? In fact, it was foreigners who had posted most of the pictures included in the government’s offensive religious set. Ironically, these kind of images are now likely to find even more viewership as more people post them—and are drawn to them—because of the sudden attention cast on them.
With free space already limited, the internet is a refuge for many who see it as the only, even if somewhat controlled, healthy space for dissent and critique. Some will further argue that the net is also more democratic when compared to the print and electronic media, a medium that allows opposing views to naturally balance each other out. “For every Rama Sene supporter, there is a Pink Chaddi campaigner,” says Menon. As for every site of ultra-nationalist outpouring, there is a left-wing blog. On the other hand, Roushan feels that Indians are still getting used to the internet. “Give it time. Users will mature; so will those currently losing sleep over online content,” he says.
Sibal has already burnt his fingers with statements like the controversial one on there being “zero loss” to the exchequer due to 2G or his airport tryst with Baba Ramdev. Soon after he plunged into the latest row, people began putting up “Sibal is an idiot” status messages on Facebook in reaction to a protest call by a blogger on Kafila. Karthika Nair, a poet and dance producer, went a step ahead, posting: “Kapil Sibal is an idiot with power, which is what makes him so dangerous.” Like it or not, new media gives a lot of leeway to personalised critique. The best response to it, perhaps, is not to offer reasons for it.
Kapil Sibal, in his corpulent smugness, encapsulates all that is wrong with this UPA regime. Just hark back to the fiasco of sending Anna to Tihar, or declaring there was no scam in 2G. This is the new style of governance, the government that can launch a thousand paunches!
Nirmal Kumar, on e-mail
And this man holds the future of education in this country. Scary, isn’t it? He lost a lot of respect during the Anna Hazare agitation, but now he has forfeited whatever respect he had left, just to score a few brownie points with Mrs G. First, he should get next year’s Nobel for economics for proving ‘1,76,000 crore = zero’. Then he should get the Nobel peace prize for spreading harmony in the world by trying to censor everything objectionable about everyone.
Pankaj Jethi, Jagadhri
I had quite a laugh after a long time. Is this what Sibal wants to censor? This kind of lampooning was very much in the public space before the Election Commission put a ban on defacing of walls during elections.
Narendra Kaushik, Gurgaon
As they say, “vinaasha kaale vipreeta buddhi”. When the end (or destruction) nears, people go crazy. This is what is happening with the government. They can police the internet but they cannot police minds; people will continue to think what they already do. So what if they cannot express it on the internet? They will find some other media.
There is stuff out there which stinks. There is stuff out there which I would not like to see done on me. In an open medium like the internet it could be technologically possible to issue a rebuttal. So if there is a doctored photo of me, I should have the right to tell the website owner that he/she please also include a denial from me.
Gul Ramani, Dusseldorf
Mr Sibal, your comments are causing a “riot” on the internet here. It makes a perfect case for calling in the cops!
K.M.K. Mohan, Visakhapatnam
Kapil Sibal is just a desperate publicity-monger, the average Congress sycophant. His sole concern is to get the best he can as long as the good times last, with a little help from friends in the media who are part of the sycophancy food chain. But, of course, when so much gloss is applied over idiots pretending to be indulging in intellectual debates, even slowpokes look smart.
K.P. Ganesh, Bangalore
On finding the morphed and distorted images of his party’s goddess and god on the web, a devout Kapil ‘Zero Loss’ Sibal felt dutybound to react.
Pramod Srivastava, New Delhi
There is a flip side to all this blind veneration of new media. Unverified and baseless data proliferates online, becoming quotable “truths” in the course of time, reference material for establishing even non-existent truths. You know what they say about repeated lies.
R.V. Subramanian, Gurgaon
Why so much hullabaloo and heartburn about morphed pictures? Political cartoons have always been around. Obviously, the degree of decency and satire has come down to gutter level, but then which stream of public life has maintained quality and decency?
The content that Sibal seems to have taken offence to is at best in bad taste but not offensive or illegal. Vinod Mehta better be watching out! Years ago, Cho Ramaswamy, editor, Thuglak, published near-naked photos of Sita and Rama. The idea was only to show the tableaus used by some Dravida Kazhagam procession condemning Hindu gods and goddesses. But it was Cho who was arrested for publishing obscene pictures!
Col C.V. Venugopalan (retd), Palakkad
Looks like the government is fast running out of friend requests and existing ones like Mamata are fast unfriending them. Maybe that is why they have decided to tweak the privacy settings on their profile.
Rahul Mudholkar, Pune
How come the Congress, via Kapil Sibal’s recent comments on curbing net freedom, has done such a volte-face on its traditionally established stand that in India painters like M.F. Husain and writers like A.K. Ramanujan can draw, paint or write blatantly blasphemous material against religious icons and deities? By the way, will I be jailed for saying what I have, Mr Sibal? Readers, please bail me out if indeed I am.
Yogeet Sharma, Jaipur
You and your cartoonist have a great sense of humour! The cover of December 19, 2011 Outlook reminds me of Adolf Hitler, who was supposed to have committed suicide along with Eva Braun, at the end of World War II. It seems now that Adolf Hitler has reincarnated (especially his moustache!). I hope the gentleman on the cover picture is a subscriber to Outlook.
L.J. Celestine, Bangalore
I am not a Kapil Sibal fan, but this freedom of expression hysteria is also bogus.
Pradip Singh, Stafford, UK
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Kapil Sibal and his tribe represent the duplicitous, hypocritical mob with their uncontrollable and fanatic hatred for Bharat and Hinduism. They are the 'intellectual progeny' of the white race that was supposed to have left this land over 60 years ago. They represent the vulgar face of the cultural colonialists.
What else can explain their rant about the sacred right of freedom of expression when it came to MF Hussain and his nude paintings of Hindu deities on the one hand and demanding censorship when it came to cartoons of Sonia Mata, Manmohan and some prophet on the other?
They are too quick to protest about the hurt caused to the Muslim community but Hindus are fair game for him.
They deserve TOTAL contempt.
I am no admirer of the UPA or the Congress Party. Much less Mr Kapil Sibal, the advocate who can see only the legal angles and not the political or social implications of the misrule of the Union Govt. Yet I find the morphed pictures of the political leaders as shown above as offensive and distasteful.
How does one arrive at a balanace between people's right to freedom of speech and its inoffensive dimension ?
Here is a sane comment in the midst of mass hysteria about how internet has replaced GOD.
I totally agree.
"MF Husain died panging to return home"
And that is why he took the citizenship of Qatar – the land of the free.
I am not a fan of Kapil Sibal. But this freedom of expression hysteria is also bogus. There is no such thing as absolute freedom. Freedom must be exercised with responsibility. One person's freedom of expression could be the infringement of the freedom of someone else. I know that sounds fuddy duddy and not in tune with the current fashion, but we must keep a sense of balance and stop worshipping internet as the NEW GOD.
The intolerance of internet fanatics is very disturbing.
Also the morphed photo of Ramdev and Sonia...and Manmohan and Sonia is hot! Seriously, widow romance just got a big boost. I am hoping a porno version is also in the works...Hollywood calling for Sonia, Ramdev and MMS even before SRK get his break.
Btw will be great to see the premier on Vinod Mehta debonair outlook...
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