The Indian government is asking internet companies to “prescreen” user generated content to “remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online” says the New York Times.
Officials from the Indian offices of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook met Kapil Sibal, acting telecommunications minister, on Monday according to an unnamed executives. Sibal’s office confirmed a meeting but wouldn’t say what it was about.
This isn’t Sibal’s first meeting with internet companies:
At [a] meeting [six weeks ago], Mr. Sibal showed attendees a Facebook page that maligned the Congress Party’s president, Sonia Gandhi. “This is unacceptable,” he told attendees, the executive said, and he asked them to find a way to monitor what is posted on their sites.
In the second meeting with the same executives in late November, Mr. Sibal told them that he expected them to use human beings to screen content, not technology, the executive said.
Sibal’s demands that companies have staff proactively looking for and then deleting “objectionable content” before it is published are unworkable. The sheer volume of user content posted to social media sites is simply enormous. YouTube sees 48 hours’ worth of video uploaded every minute, or to put it another way, eight years of content is uploaded every day. Facebook has 800 mn active users worldwide and 25 mn users in India. Google has over 100 mn users in India. There’s simply no way that they can watch every minute of video, read every blog post or webpage, listen to every audio file or look at every photograph.
But worse than asking the impossible, Sibal’s demand is essentially censorship. Many countries provide internet service providers with ‘safe habour’ which essentially means that they are not responsible for content that violates the law until it is reported to them. India, however, has been eroding safe habour and a revision of the regulations on intermediaries’ obligations earlier this year was criticised for lacking openness and having a very short consultation period. Says the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
The rules came into force quietly in April. Their overbroad scope poses the greatest problem. They require intermediaries to adopt terms of service that prohibit users from hosting, displaying, publishing, sending or sharing any proscribed content, including not just obscene or infringing content, but also any material that threatens national "unity" or "integrity," "public order," or is that "grossly offensive or menacing in nature," "disparaging," or "otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever." Such a broad standard lacks clear limits on what kinds of content may be taken down and invites abuse.
It’s one thing to ask sites to remove content which contravenes a law, though there must be due legal process and that due process must be followed. But it is dangerous to use such vague and easy language as “grossly offensive” or “disparaging” and then to rely on government officials and private citizens to define those terms rather than the courts of law. There would be none of the checks and balances, scrutiny and oversight that should be in place when the public's right to free speech is being challenged. Only that which is clearly unlawful, rather than simply unpleasant, should be taken down.
There is a dangerous trend that has emerged over the last year and a half, of the Indian government trying to monitor, identify and block digital (online and mobile) communications, and increasingly there is paranoia over their lack of control over the digital space.
Sibal is asking internet companies to censor their own users because they could do it much more effectively than the government could. But it’s a request which simply can’t end well. If international companies find themselves unable to function in the Indian online market, they will simply withdraw. If Indian companies find themselves hamstrung by onerous laws, they will fold. And anyone considering the kind of start-up that would be affected by these regulations will look for something else to do. Thus the government chills online speech, trade and innovation in one fell swoop.
It’s sadly true that governments around the world are taking a brickbat to the internet, using overly broad language to describe technically unworkable solutions to problems which are of society, not technology. There are existing laws about obscenity, hate speech, and harassment, and these are the laws which should be used when people transgress, regardless of the medium in which they do so.
Governments around the world also needs to remember that the concept of free speech doesn’t only apply to those with whom they agree. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said in her biography of Voltaire, as an illustration of his beliefs:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
The Indian government should restrict itself to addressing illegal content, not content that it merely disapproves of.