Freedom's ball and chain
The government’s latest rules governing social media and digital news platforms need to be implemented keeping the principles of free speech and the right to privacy intact
Gear up for lesser Internet freedoms and personal privacy. Yup, the new rules governing social media and online news is set to do all that and much more. While on the face of it, these new rules are meant to prevent misuse of the digital platforms, it's not hard to discern the 'Big Brother' stance of the government as it intends to gain a stranglehold over people's online activity. In the eye of the storm are social media biggies such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. who will now have to conform to various stringent measures put in place by the government. Ease of business you ask? Well, not for these social media giants.
Twitter is already mired in a standoff with the Indian government over the Republic Day violence where it took deactivated some accounts on the government's behest only to reinstate a few citing 'freedom of expression'. While there have been demands of greater transparency from social media companies based on ethics and questions on what constitutes as objectionable content, the central government poking its nose into the matters of corporates seems an unnecessary overreach of the Indian executive that is already making international headlines.
The new diktats are also meant to govern online news, which will now come under the aegis of the Press Council of India and have to be mandatorily registered under the Information and Broadcast (I&B) ministry, and over-the-top (OTT) platforms. The former may impinge on press freedoms and the refreshingly brave journalism that we have been witnessing from a chosen few independent news platforms acerbic in their criticism of government policies. The latter is yet another kick to the groin of artistic liberty, which is already greatly reduced due to OTT platforms' own self-regulation. Bye, bye realistic, uncomfortable web content! It was nice while it lasted.
Social media platforms will also have to disclose the 'first originator' of the unacceptable content and will carry a punishment of up to five years for the perpetrator. Clamping down on social media is of such paramount importance to the government that an officer of a joint secretary-level or above will direct the blocking of unfavourable content, which can further be sent by an appellate body to a government-controlled committee. The key words here are again 'government-controlled'. What if the government is wrong? Who protects our rights of freedom of expression? Must every citizen, in that case, rush to the courts seeking justice? Very few will have the time or resources to pursue such cases, choosing instead to remain muted. And is the government, always right? At the end of the day, aren't they just men and women doing their job and susceptible to mistakes and follies?
Some of the new rules reiterate what social media sites have already been implementing — barring of content that is obscene and racist. However, our government has added to the list content that threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India. Now, who decides what is threatening the unity and integrity of India? Any kind of criticism or protest can be construed as anti-national, as has been happening already. As a nation, we are now poised to become even more allergic to dissent and further indoctrinated into the herd mentality.
Added to these new set of rules by the Information Technology Ministry, is a witch-hunt programme already launched by the Ministry of Home Affairs wherein as a 'Cyber Crime Volunteer' or 'Unlawful Content Flagger' you can flag any content that you may find offensive to your own ideals. So, anyone could be anti-national, seditious, racist, etc. Once again, what are the rules governing this decision-making?
The more one tries to quash dissent, the worse it becomes. Allowing the criticism of a nation's policies cannot and must not brand one as anti-national. When the Emperor went out in public sans clothes, the only brave, nationalistic person in that crowd was the kid who dared to point out that the Emperor was naked. These new rules threaten to rob brave citizens of that voice, and may easily become a weapon of intimidation and harassment. Therefore, dear readers, you better stick to posting and circulating only annoying yet innocuous 'good morning' messages; that's all that our intellect seems good for anyway.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal