As the government cracks down on websites and social networks that it says are responsible for posting inflammatory and hateful content that led to a mass exodus of people from North-eastern states from south Indian cities, online activists are decrying the lack of transparency with which the government is blocking websites and content.
Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher, MediaNama, is one of them. “Rather than shooting the messenger, the government should have used social media to spread facts,” he said.
There were some sporadic incidents of authorities trying to do this. "(We) wish to assure all people from the north east that (there is) no reason whatsoever to panic or leave Delhi. Please report any disturbing incident to us. We are with you for help," tweeted Delhi police commissioner Neeraj Kumar. But such examples were rare, and far from what be called an organized campaign to counter the rumours.
One week has passed since the exodus began, and in that time the government has blocked over 250 websites. It has also asked intermediaries to disable inflammatory/ hateful content and identify users who have posted this content. If companies do not tow the line, department of telecommunications secretary (DoT) R Chandrashekhar told CNN-IBN that the government may take recourse in court.
“So far, the speed at which the companies are responding has been very slow. If they do not respond to our query on the source of information, we may comtemplate taking legal action on the services provided, revenue generated and the damages caused to the country,” said Chandrashekhar.
But are the government's actions too draconian?
“There are serious issues with the way the government went about blocking the sites. First, we don’t know which sites have been blocked. In the coming days, the government should make public the list of these websites. Second, the administrative orders such as the ones pertaining to blocking of the websites have to be open orders. People are supposed to know the reasons for the blocks. Third, if my website has been blocked, I have no recourse under the information technology (IT) Act,” said Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society, which is based in Bangalore.
Online content has been on the radar of the ruling government much before the Bangalore episode. India tops the list of countries which sent content removal requests to Google, according to the latest Google transparency report. And more significantly, a substantial amount of these requests are regarding content that offend the government.
There are concerns emanating from the perception that and in the garb of blocking the sites actually responsible for spreading inflammatory content, the government may block the sites which have nothing to do with the controversy. “We should not be surprised if we find that some legitimate sites were also banned,” said Prakash.
And yet others feel that curbing social media is a 'quick fix' solution and does not really address the root cause of the problem.
"The debate on social media diverts the attention from the issue at hand. While the spotlight is on the role of Twitter,Facebook, SMS and MMS in making people flee Bangalore, there is hardly any discussion on the socio-economic conditions of north-eastern people living in South India. Social media solely cannot be blamed for the events in Britain, Arab or India, said Commander Mukesh Saini (retired), a cyber security expert.
“Misinformation on social media itself cannot become into a monster unless supplemented with some real world information", he said.
Social media may spread a message but it is the situation on ground which actually helps people in making decisions.