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Should India ban Twitter?

By Kamna Arora | Last Updated: Friday, August 24, 2012 - 17:30
Kamna Arora
Éminence Grise

Is India becoming another China? That’s exactly what struck my mind when the Indian government threatened "appropriate and suitable action" against Twitter, which has about 16 million users in India, if it failed to block accounts containing objectionable content.

As soon as the already weak social fabric of India was exposed with the so-called exodus of northeastern Indians from major cities, the government began a sort of crackdown on social networking websites, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

It asked Internet service providers to block around 300 web pages in a bid to quell ethnic tensions between illegal Bangladeshi migrants and people from the North East. And it further limited SMS messages to five per user per day for 15 days (the limit has now been revised to 20 per user per day).

According to the government, Google and Facebook largely cooperated, while Twitter’s response has been slower to block 28 accounts containing objectionable content.

When the government accused social media sites of not taking quick action to remove inflammatory posts and pictures that allegedly helped stoke tensions at the August 11 Azad Maidan protest in Mumbai, how could it forget to slam its own intelligence network for not pointing it out earlier?

Shameful is the fact that the world’s largest democracy is curbing the freedom of expression to hide its own incompetence.

I remember making a story much before the August 11 incident about exaggeration by some groups of the incidences of ill-treatment of Muslims in Myanmar to stoke tensions elsewhere. In fact, a report at that time around mentioned about a series of doctored and misidentified photographs that were circulating widely, especially in the Pakistani social media, showing violence against Rohingyas. But the government was probably sleeping till the hate messages and pictures were directed at India to stoke tensions.

Coming back to today’s scenario, if the government just wanted to get rid of the pictures and content that contained hate speech, which resulted in recent tensions in Bangalore, Mysore and elsewhere, then why did it block those Twitter users, who have either supposedly criticised the government or made fun of it? Twitter was asked to block parody accounts operating under the names of PMO and Manmohan Singh.

The idea of banning speech that can add fuel to the fire is fine, but the government’s knee-jerk broad censorship is worrisome. According to Bangalore's Center for Internet and Society, some local as well as international news outlets were blocked between August 18 and August 21. It noted that even posts that discredited rumors have also been blocked.

In fact, Twitter accounts of prominent journalists were also blocked, resulting in the emergence of the hashtag #emergency2012, which is a reference to the Emergency period in 1975.

The funniest part was that Milind Deora, the minister of state for Communications and Information Technology, who used Twitter on Thursday to defend the government’s actions, had got his account suspended for unknown reasons on Friday.

Also interesting is the fact that when the international community was warning India not to make a terrible mistake by cracking down on communications technology, New Delhi found a sympathiser in none other than China.

A newspaper affiliated to the Communist Party of China said: “What happened in India can help us understand more objectively whether the Internet can foment social instability and how it does so."

The Global Times newspaper also hit out at the US for the role played by Facebook and Twitter in increasing the troubles. Notably, Facebook and Twitter are banned in China.

A piece of advice for the esteemed Indian government, which is trying hard to save its face amidst various corruption cases: Banning social networking websites to prevent violence from spilling over won’t help, but strengthening social fiber of this country to avert such tensions from even arising will do.

A patriotic advice: Politicians, please don’t make India another China, but a role model for the world.

First Published: Friday, August 24, 2012 - 17:30

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