"I urge you to write KAPIL SIBAL IS AN IDIOT as your Facebook status message, use the hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal on Twitter," asks a new campaign launched by the left-leaning site Kafila.org. The communication minister's reported effort to crack down on offensive internet content evoked widespread abuse online, ranging from angry Facebook updates to Twitter-fueled invective.
While much of this is amusing – and heartening – it begs the bigger question: why is there such poor protection for political speech in our country? The answer lies elsewhere, not in the personalities of those involved in this latest imbroglio. Kapil Sibal may be an idiot — or not — but more importantly, he represents the feudal mentality of the broader political class, which is in turn enabled by the multinational companies — all in the guise of protecting our cultural sensibilities.
Sibal's latest offensive — to force Facebook, Google et al to prescreen content — is merely an escalation of an already aggressive policy against the "defamation" of political leaders. In 2008, two young men were arrested for posting derogatory content on Orkut about Sonia Gandhi. (Google obediently turned their ISP address over, and the local authorities did the rest) Shiv Sena supporters in the past have trashed cyber cafes in protest of Orkut pages denigrating Bal Thackeray and Shivaji. Again, the anti-Shiv Sena groups were shut down. More recently, Digvijaya Singh filed an FIR against certain sites for taking "highly offensive" potshots at him.
And these are just the most public instances of the ongoing under-the-radar censorship of online speech. The companies' unofficial response to the latest demand for prescreening, in fact, encourages such post-publication bullying: “We have told the government that we will cooperate with the government in penalising those found guilty of uploading objectionable content … we have urged them to prosecute such elements under relevant Acts by filing cases against them."
India may only be number five in requests for removal of content — 68 between January and June this year — but it also has a far looser definition of 'offensive.' As a Firstpost article notes, anything that can be censored if it is deemed a threat to national “unity” or “integrity,” “public order,” “grossly offensive or menacing in nature,” “disparaging,” or “otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.”
The excuse for this free-floating authoritarianism is always the same: We Indians are just sooo sensitive.
The "communal sentiment" bogeyman is repeatedly evoked by various government officials, including the likes of Gulshan Rai who told the Wall Street Journal: "If you are doing business here, you should follow the local law, the sentiments of the people, the culture of the country, … If somebody starts abusing Lord Rama on a Web site, that could start riots."
The same figleaf was also offered up by an unnamed "top official" this time around: "What do you think about these derogatory pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, the (Indian) prime minister and the Congress president? Anybody will feel outraged. The government of India does not believe in censorship. But sensitivity and feelings of different communities cannot be allowed to be hurt."
What is striking about the statement is the way it easily clubs together a holy icon with two entirely mortal politicians. Our leaders are indeed sacred cows, at least in their minds. The Prophet, Lord Rama, Shivaji, Bal Thackeray, Sonia Gandhi...a pantheon of gods installed on a lofty pedestal beyond reproach. To speak against any is to invite the equivalent of an online fatwa.
Two decades of liberalisation may have delivered the trappings of modernity — malls, wifi, IT companies and SEZs — but has left untouched the socialist/feudal mindset where speaking against the powerful is viewed as blasphemy. In the minds of our leaders and their supporters, the average citizen remains a lowly nobody who needs to always remember his "place." Hence, when Harvinder Singh slapped Sharad Pawar in a publicity-seeking stunt, they were shocked not just by the act but also the widespread celebration it evoked.
When Sibal points Facebook officials to the computer screen, declaring, "This is unacceptable," he is referring not just to the anti-Sonia page but the sheer presumption it symbolises. And yes, this isn't just about censorship but feudal entitlement, the entrenched privilege of the political class to remain unsullied by the grubby words of the teeming masses.
The problem for our politicians is that the market didn't just change our lifestyles but also our mindset. The new Indian middle class is no longer willing to content to quietly air its discontent in the discreet privacy of the home. This new confidence accentuated by the anonymity of the internet has uncorked decades of seething rage which now finds vituperative expression online.
Now is much of this content tasteless? Yes. Even outright offensive in a number of cases, perhaps. But that is the price of being a public figure in a modern democracy. Just google the terms Obama and n****r.
Free speech isn't pretty. If it were, it wouldn't be truly free.
Responding to an attempt to ban demeaning comments on death memorial sites — which is surely the very definition of obscene — free speech advocate Ken Paulson writes, "The truth is that the free flow of online opinions — even the deeply offensive and emotionally jarring — is a vibrant sign of a democracy at work." More so when the comments are aimed not at some poor dead soul but at alive-and-well politicians.
There is no doubt that the "community standards" for offensive speech in India are likely to be stricter than those of the United States. But cultural difference has become a pretext for American companies to accede to political demands for censorship. The Wall Street Journal reported last year:
Google has learned to be wary of material that could ignite unrest, from incendiary comments about politicians such as Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi to user groups bashing revered historical or religious figures.
"In those gray areas it is really hard," says Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel, who oversees the legal aspects of new Google product launches. "On the one hand, we believe very strongly in political speech and, on the other hand, in India they do riot and they blow up buses."
But who are 'they'? These people who trash cafes to protest anti-Shiv Sena web groups. Who demand the arrest of RSS leader KS Sudarshan for calling Sonia a "CIA agent". Who are far too immature, irresponsible and highstrung to handle a truly free internet, or for that matter, democracy.
Who, oh who could they possibly be?