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Sibal has a point; social media must find a way to screen rubbish

When Kapil Sibal announced a couple of months ago that he had asked social media sites to monitor their content, there was a howl of protest. “Government censorship!” the cries went up, “Curtailment of liberty!” “Trampling of democracy!” It seemed then that Sibal, no stranger to controversy, had done it again.

But if Sibal is a bull in a china shop, he is not quite ready to leave, even if the howls of protest go stratospheric in their decibel level. Now comes the latest salvo: the government has given its okay to prosecute Facebook, Google, Yahoo and 18 other social networking sites.

The first surprise – at least for someone like me — is that there are as many as 21 social networking sites. The second surprise is that this government, which seems to back away at the first sight of any protest or opposition, has resolutely decided to continue an unpopular course of action. So to be fair, instead of succumbing to the usual knee-jerk response which characterised the reaction to Kapil Sibal’s first remarks, perhaps it’s time we considered the government case objectively.

Facebook

Freedom of speech is a wonderful concept, but it can never be absolute. Social networking sites need to respect this because the stakes are extremely high. AFP

What is the government’s case? Its sanction to prosecute has come under section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) for ‘promoting enmity between classes and causing prejudice to national integration.’ Incidentally, in a separate case, the court itself had summoned the 21 sites for ‘sale of obscene books and obscene objects to young persons.’

Many theories have been floated as to why the government chose to take this course of action at this particular time. One doing the rounds said that it was an attempt to shield Sonia and other members of the Gandhi family from attacks of a scurrilous kind. A second view was that the UPA government was losing the battle for the popular mind to Anna Hazare’s movement, and so tried diversionary tactics to deflect attention. These are the two popular theories. No doubt there are many other, far more fanciful ones.

But why can’t these conspiracy theorists take the government’s word at face-value? Shashi Tharoor, writer, MP, former minister of state for foreign affairs and civil libertarian was really upset about the government order, and said so in his usual forthright manner. But when Sibal showed him the content of the social media networks which the government found objectionable, Tharoor changed his mind. He was appalled by what had been written and said so in one of his columns, concluding that he now felt government action was justified.

Personally, I have absolutely no doubt about that. In many years of writing I have championed free speech as much as anyone else, but the good old days of print are a thing of the past, and we now face an entirely different world, a world in which there are no fetters; not just that, there is now no restraint.

Earlier, the editorial team of a newspaper exercised the right to free speech as long as the free speech was cogent, made a point and was literate. Articles, editorials and reports were generally written by the editor, assistant editors, correspondents and reporters, all of whom were appointed to their jobs because they were suitably qualified for their work and had the ability to express themselves through the written word.

In addition, of course, the job made them accountable for each and every word they wrote. Articles from non-staff outsiders also came from people who were either specialists or in other ways qualified to write on particular subjects. Even regular columns were vetted to ensure that they contained no objectionable material. Letters from readers were similarly vetted, and only those which had a point of view put across reasonably intelligently, got published.

Much of this is obvious, but it needs reiteration to contrast with the scene today. Social networking sites enable anyone, as long as they have access to a computer or a smart phone, to ‘express’ themselves, and express themselves in any way they deem fit. At best, these views are hackneyed, stereotyped or banal; at worst, they are abusive, scurrilous and defamatory.

You could take the extreme liberal view and say, “So what? What harm does this do?” The answer to that is irrefutable: it can do immense harm if it is seen by the ‘wrong kind’ of people. As it happens, only the wrong kind of person will see it, because the ‘right kind’, i.e. the person who can think for himself, who is logical and can see through propaganda and can distinguish between lies, half-truths and the truth, will not waste his time reading the drivel which passes off as views.

The kind of person who will read these postings is precisely the kind who does not have the power to discriminate and is, therefore, vulnerable to the distorted messages they contain.

What happens then? These distortions could occasionally be harmless, but can often be divisive and even dangerous. This is especially so in our country where religious feelings are always at fervour-pitch, and trouble-makers need to find only a small spark to start sectarian conflagrations, communal riots, etc, which could claim very many lives. Is that acceptable?

There are also, as we all well know, a whole lot of fanatics around who would like to poison young and susceptible minds and brainwash them with propaganda to turn them into terrorists. Is that acceptable?

Freedom of speech is a wonderful concept, but it can never be absolute. Social networking sites need to respect this because the stakes are extremely high. They can’t hide behind the impossibility of monitoring the sheer volume of postings. They have a responsibility to find a way.