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12 December, 2011

Bid to rein in social media

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As the world hailed the social media’s role in promoting change last week, authorities in India, annoyed by content unacceptable to them, were looking for ways to rein it in.

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, in focusing on social media during the International Human Rights Day celebrations on Saturday, had said it enabled ordinary people, from Cairo and Tunis to Madrid and New York, to demand change.

Indian citizens howled in protest as a New York Times blog revealed Communications Minister Kapil Sibal had been talking to executives of Internet companies and social media sites to persuade them to prescreen user content from the country and remove objectionable material before it goes online.

Sibal had reportedly shown them a Facebook page that maligned Congress President Sonia Gandhi and said, “This is unacceptable.” The Google Transparency Report disclosed that between January and June this year the Indian government had requested the company to remove 358 items from its services, including YouTube and Orkut, citing various reasons.

The most widely cited reason was criticism of the government (255 items). Other reasons included defamation (39), privacy and security (20), impersonation (14), hate speech (8), pornography (3) and national security (1). The reason for seeking blocking of the remaining15 items was not clear.

The government’s effort met with a good measure of success. Although the report said “we declined the majority of these requests” it conceded that as much as 51 per cent of them were complied with. The contradiction in the statement apparently stems from the fact that in many cases compliance was partial, with the company locally restricting videos “that appeared to violate local laws prohibiting speech that could incite enmity between communities”.

Google also received requests from the police to remove 236 communities and profiles from Orkut. It did not comply with the request as the content did not violate its community standards or local laws. There were also requests to remove some YouTube videos on the ground that they displayed protests against social leaders or used offensive language against religious leaders.

Sibal’s interaction with Internet service providers was part of a misconceived plan to curb new media. In 2000, the government had enacted the Information Technology Act, which, while giving legitimacy to electronic communication, provided for action against those misusing the facility. Three years ago the law was amended in the light of experience.

Exercising powers flowing from this law, the Kerala police had arrested a doctor who created a website in the name of a former minister and uploaded allegedly defamatory videos. On a complaint by Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Pinarayi Vijayan, it had lured home a UAE-based Keralite who allegedly forwarded by e-mail the photograph of a mansion falsely claiming it was Vijayan’s house.

Last year the makers of BlackBerry refused India’s request to give it access to users’ messages. Early this year the government assumed the power to ask ISPs to delete information posted on websites which officials or private citizens considered disparaging or harassing. It has also drawn up plans to set up a unit to monitor information posted on websites and social media sites.

Anna Hazare’s supporters are using social networks with a fair degree of success in their anti-corruption drive. This, coupled with the government’s citing of criticism as the main reason for wanting to block social network posts, lends support to the widely held view that fear of a Jasmine revolution haunts the authorities.

According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the number of Net users is expected to touch 121 million by the year-end. Of them, 97 million may be active users who “access Internet at least once in a month”.

Google India claims more than 100 million users and Facebook more than 25 million. While the country has a large Internet population, the authorities’ threat perception appears to be exaggerated. Indian cyber space is as diverse and divided as Indian society and polity, and cannot at present give rise to a movement of the kind that swept the Arab countries.

The freedom the Indian media enjoys flows from the freedoms of speech and expression that the Constitution guarantees to all citizens. It must apply to digital media as much as it does to print and electronic media. Any regulatory mechanism created to check misuse of the freedom must remain outside the government’s control but it must have statutory backing.--Gulf Today, December 12, 2011.

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