Consensus likely for genuine social media curbs

Should India consider a more pro-active approach to vet social media content?

Zee Research Group

As India struggles to find a vexed solution to the social media onslaught against it, the focus has shifted away from the debate over government ban to setting in motion a process to keep anti-national elements out while restoring freedom of expression.

Last year, communications and IT minister Kapil Sibal’s case for censoring content on the internet was greeted with cynicism and rebuttal from everyone. Not only that, Sibal’s view was dubbed as yet another exercise of sycophancy by a Congress minister.

However, life has come full circle and the minister must be having the last laugh. Following the violence in Assam and rumour mongering via social media and bulk messages, the debate to rein in social media content has reignited. Only this time, it is more favourably weighed towards policymakers, of course with the iteration that genuine freedom of expression does not get stifled.

The country’s intelligentsia and policy circles are asking - should a socially volatile and fragile country like India consider a more pro-active approach to vet social media content on the internet? Those who support the “ban or censor” approach cite the role played by new media in the large-scale exodus of north-eastern citizens from major Indian cities in the wake of Assam riots.

Their point - the government had to step in by issuing an advisory to internet service providers to disable inflammatory content that targeted north-eastern people spread through bulk text messages and social media. Why wait for another day to make the internet more accountable?

Those for unhindered freedom of speech and expression including the internet contend that it is unfair to lay blame at the doorstep of social media sites. Rather the government should appraise its own track record of enforcing law and order.

History is replete with examples that ban or censorship hasn’t always yielded best results. The human longing for information – which predates the advent of technology – will find ways to the people.

Both sides have merit in their arguments. No one disagrees that social media space shouldn’t be misused to vitiate social atmosphere. Even government is not considering an explicit ban. Sachin Pilot, minister of state for communications and IT, affirmed in an interview to a national business daily, “We are not looking at clampdowns. We want websites to exercise self-regulation. The government cannot go around with a stick and tell them what to do.”

But even self-regulation won’t help unless the security situation on the ground improves drastically. That’s where authorities must look at their own track records and inspire confidence among people by setting examples. On top of these, objective categories must be devised to separate what amounts to rumour mongering and public views under freedom of expression. Blanket bans or censorship shouldn’t become a tool to gag ideologically opposed views. For instance, post-north eastern exodus clampdown on social media also saw authorities blocking twitter accounts of prominent right-wing journalists. In an interview to website, journalist Kanchan Gupta accused UPA of blocking his twitter account for writing against the Congress party, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the United Progressive Alliance.

Moreover, do we have the necessary tools and preparedness to tackle cyber terrorism? The videos and pictures posted on social media inciting violence against north-eastern people and their exodus from Indian cities is one such danger? To begin with, at present, India doesn’t have an exclusive law to tackle rumour mongering through cyber and mobile telephony mediums. There are few sections in the amended Information Technology Act, 2008, which partially deals with spreading offensive or false information using digital medium. Current laws would have to be amended to include mobile phone-based rumour mongering. However, government is not yet contemplating new laws or amendments. Pilot, in the same interview reiterated: “We have strict laws in place. I don’t think we need to have new laws.”

However, experts differ from the junior IT minister and reckon threat emanating from virtual terrorism and its potential to trigger widespread violence. Cyber law expert Pawan Duggal from Delhi warns, “India is not at all ready for virtual attacks. Authorities in India need to put a tab on these mischievous activities by filtering the usage. We need a strong amendment in India and it is high time so, Government should amend provisions as soon as possible.”

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