New Delhi: The Internet knows no boundaries, follows no rules. The web is about presenting all sides of a story. It is this uniqueness of the medium which, many say, fuelled the uprising in Egypt, contributed to the Arab Spring and the London riots. Back home, social media played a major role in making Anna Hazare the phenomenon he has become.
Turn the argument upside down and you get an argument for censorship or screening of content — that no freedom is absolute, especially in a nation of more than a billion people, home to diverse communities.
Riding on this theory, union Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal and his battery of bureaucrats met representatives from Google, Facebook and other websites at least thrice in the last two months. It is believed that Sibal has suggested pre-screening of content that promotes obscenity and hatred among religions. Others say it was about some cartoons depicting Mrs Gandhi and other political leaders.
The government's move was a cue for Aijaz Ashraf Qasmi and Vinay Rai, friends for five years, to move court against the ‘erring’ websites.
On 20 December, Qasmi, a former spokesperson of madrassa Deoband, filed a civil suit in a Delhi court demanding removal of 'blasphemous' content and an assurance from 21 websites that in the future, they would not host any such content. "I had come across some outrageous pictures and cartoons on the Internet. When I read the news of government meeting them (representatives of websites), I thought this was the right time to take action,” said Qasmi.
Founder of fatwaonline.org, Qasmi is a qualified mufti from Deoband. He also pursued journalism from the seminary before shifting base to Delhi in 2006.
"Material, which has the potential of hurting the religious sentiments of people, should not be allowed on the websites. Things like these can act as bomb in a society as sensitive as ours,” said Qasmi, showing the content that he produced in court as evidence in a sealed envelope.
On 16 December, Rai, former journalist with a national news channel, filed a criminal suit in the Patiala House court against the websites on the same grounds. "Freedom of speech does not mean you can show whatever you want. I have no issues with cartoons of individuals including politicians. But do not attack any religion. Insulting religions means instigating riots," said Rai, citing the example of protests in 2005 and early 2006 in the Middle East and Africa due to caricatures of Prophet Mohammad carried in a Danish newspaper and some European publications.
Both Qasmi and Rai are for pre-screening or censorship of content on search engines and social networking sites.
Ban is neither intended nor practical, they said.
On 23 December, the two lead a delegation of 100 people that told the Telecom minister about the harmful effects of using the word 'Ban'. "The government should not say it wanted a ban on sites. It should talk about screening," said Qasmi.
“YouTube is a good example. Every video is screened before being uploaded. It does not appear on the site, instantly. Other sites should have similar norms in place," said Rai, who studied social work and law at the Lucknow University, before turning to journalism.
They also briefed Sibal about the progress of the court cases. "He assured us that he would (do) the best possible in this matter," said Qasmi, who has more than 1,500 friends on Facebook.
"But they are all old friends from the madrassa. I don't have friends from 'other' categories," he emphasised.
The minister, according to Qasmi, impressed the delegation by stating, "When we have proper systems in place for print and electronic media, then why not for websites?"
Even if the minister manages to make the websites in question remove 'offensive' material acting on court's order, or if they do so pro-actively, by then the same content would have spread to multiple websites. In fact, this is what differentiates the Internet from other media. How many websites are we going to monitor?
If we apply this logic, argues Rai, we should not fight terror outfits as well, because "if we ban one, then another will emerge somewhere else?”
Qasmi takes a milder approach. “Some websites are more popular than others, especially social networking sites. The youth is addicted to them. At least act against these sites if not all," he said.
The kind of screening they are demanding, said Qasmi, is very much in place in the United States of America and many Western countries.
"The West is following double standards. When they do not allow publishing of such material in their countries, how can they propagate such material on websites in India? On top of it, Hillary Clinton is creating pressure on the Indian government not to act against these sites," said Qasmi, adding he was ready for a longer battle.
"People from all over the world are congratulating me on this initiative and have offered help. This is the beginning."