by Tristan Stewart-Robertson Dec 6, 2011 18:01 IST
Really? Someone else suggesting censoring Facebook? In this seemingly endless year of relentless news, you could be easily forgiven for thinking Kapil Sibal's comments about Facebook are redundant.
The acting telecommunications minister is in fine company. This year has seen shutdowns of the internet in various Middle East, calls for restriction of social media during civil unrest by British Prime Minister David Cameron, and just last week Facebook was ordered by judges in the US to remove pages for fake products such as imitation Chanel.
Of course, Sibal hasn't just commented. He's acted. In fact, according to the New York Times who broke the story, he has been working for months to get content screened in advance.
Technologically speaking, this is, obviously, impossible. The net would move so slowly as to require a hand crank to get it going if every social media comment or blog post had to be cleared first. And it clashes directly with India's Minister of State for Information and Communications Technology Sachin Pilot who, in a press release before the London Conference on Cyberspace last month, said: "India’s ambitious National e-Governance Plan to create a citizen-centric and business centric environment and to connect every Indian to the information highway."
Yes, India is so citizen centric it wants to check what citizens think before they speak, and so business centric it hauls in multi-national mega-firms and orders them to cut off a limb.
Mr Sibal is at least correct in identifying that the digital age makes it really easy to offend people. It's not that people are more offensive, though the internet and social media has freed us to put more of the thoughts in our heads into public view, preserved for eternity. But people are more easily offended, because that same technology allows you to react to comments made half a world away by faceless "others".
That's certainly one of the many flaws of Mr Sibal's desire for screening content in advance: half of the stuff he would want to go after probably didn't originate in India. Build a Great Digital Wall of India and you might protect sensitive sensibilities, but business would grind to a halt.
Control of information is, as I've written before, the prime motivation of everyone now. Companies such as Facebook and Google want all your information to make money off advertising. Governments want all your information because they're afraid of what you might be doing or thinking. And journalists and activists want all information because they believe openness makes the world safer.
And the public? They're too busy to notice. They just want to be able to react, as social media was created to facilitate.
Twitter has been flooded with reaction to Mr Sibal's comments. I agree that free speech is the first and most fundamental of rights. Without it, you can't call for all the other rights humans are given, or inherit, depending on your view.
But even if Mr Sibal somehow managed to build the Great Digital Wall of India, he still couldn't silence people in their homes, on the streets or even in parliament. Because free speech is such a fundamental right, particularly in the digital age, it is also the easiest topic to get people riled up about. Serious topics don't fit into 140 characters. "Sibal is an idiot" is nice and compact.
Mr Sibal might not be protecting the morals of the nation, but he's certainly managing to distract the nation from anything else going on. Think of it as an exercise in smoke and mirrors that's got the nation coughing. If Mr Sibal wants to protect Sonia Gandhi from social media, he's succeeded by redirecting everyone's ire. Your free speech isn't really under threat. No US firm, based in the nation where "freedom of speech" is defended to the hilt, would ever agree to screen content as Mr Sibal suggested.
Your ability to recognise actual news is what's being challenged, to be able to discern what's being said and why, and to challenge those in power about what they're doing. Is anyone in parliament actually doing any work? In the quick-fire pace of social media, and of news this year, we will move on to something else tomorrow, again distracted from questions bigger than 140 characters.
After 11 months of relentless news this year, tweeting about censorship is light relief. But it's a distraction from what else is going on - and Mr Sibal has achieved that voluntary censorship by the public very successfully.
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