Millennium Post

Kapil Sibal and freedom on the Internet

A lot has been said about Kapil Sibal’s antics over the Internet policies in India. Many people have argued that allowing Sibal to have his way, Indian democracy will be strangled to death, at least on Internet. It will vest immense power to the  government to pull down any content from the Internet at any point of time and thereby kill any room for satire and dissent against government policies.

Let us first look into what has been suggested by the government. The main bone of contention is the part of the proposed policy where the government suggestively tends to control the intermediaries on the Internet. So the government may ask the intermediary to pull down the content and reveal the identity and whereabouts of the person who has posted the content. For example, if you have walked into a cyber café, put down ID proof and used the computer to post something objectionable on your Facebook wall – then some or all of the following things may happen. Government could ask Facebook to remove it. Government could ask Facebook to track down the IP address of the person and reach up to the cyber café. From there they will reach your house. The law also says that the intermediaries will have to act within a fixed time frame after receiving the complaint else stand a chance to be prosecuted.

So who stands to lose? First, the common man – who will have to become cautious before they write against a particular person or religion from their ghost identity on the Internet. But is what they do that bad? It should not be. It is called freedom of expression. I will garner a lot of comments from my friends and their friends. It will make a good masala read for anybody who stumbles upon the piece. Now one of these readers happen to be friends with the minister, takes offence to the post and asks the blog company to remove the post. They choose to ignore and the post stays.

To give it perspective, as per section 504 of the Indian Penal Code verbal abuse is a crime in India. You just cannot hide behind the ‘freedom of speech’ tag in real life with reference to abuse. But strangely you can do so on the online domain. You will not dare to go to a gathering and shout profanity at a minister but will take pleasure in doing so on your online space.  

The second party who stands to get affected is the intermediaries and among them the most vulnerable will be companies like Facebook and Google. The gigantic, unrestricted environment of the Internet creates the backbone of these two companies and monitoring them will be a painful task. GoogIe has advocated  a free Internet without any restriction for quite some time now. With the ardent fan following that Google and Facebook have in India coupled with the not-so-impressive image of the politicians, Sibal is really finding it tough. The audience will like to have a Lokpal bill that will allow them to pull the prime minister to court but a lawsuit against Google and Facebook is seemingly intolerable.

It is true that there are still a lot of gaps in the suggested working methodology of the law. Who will be authorised to raise a complaint, how many times and what happens to frivolous complaints raised is something nobody still seems to have a clear idea about. Also the grounds on which a complaint can be raised are relative and unclear and need to be discussed more. But in a democracy that should lead to more discussion and not outright rejection. Personally I am in favour of a lawful democratic environment on web. Having a mechanism to act doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be misused. I would still take the chances than face a situation with no safeguards. If half the nation is not behind the bars today despite verbal abuse being unlawful, it only proves the fact that the complainant also has a mind to apply.  Hence when the motion comes up before the Rajya Sabha during the second half of the current budget session of the parliament, a lot of sparks are set to fly in favour of free web, I will expect the house to remember that democracy does not necessarily mean the right to be uncontrolled, while Mr. Sibal who will by now have gauged the public furor at the slightest mention of ‘controlled web’ and will not like to dilute the party’s chances in next election with one more goof up, will play safe. He has already messed up the good cause by some apparently stupid acts such as placing and naming prophet Mohammed and Congress president Sonia Gandhi in a similar bracket and then creating an even worse example by pulling down an apparently harmless site called cartoon-against-corruption. Using the case the advocates of free web will try to push him back to the extreme limit. In such a backdrop, having a lawful yet free Internet in India seems to be a distant dream. I wonder if we realise that once more we are feeding a dinosaur and what happens when we become the food ourselves?

Sudipta Sengupta is General Manager with citizen journalism news portal
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