On January 18 2012, when the world tried to log into its favourite online encyclopaedia, they saw a black screen with the site’s logo and a message: Imagine a world without free knowledge. The 24-hour shutdown was Wikipedia’s protest against the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act ) and PIPA (Protect IP Act ) regulations the United States government wanted to implement. As scores of other websites joined in — Google put a black logo on its search bar — and following a huge public outcry, two days later the US Congress decided to postpone any vote on the two Bills.
If passed, the Bills mandate service providers and search engines to block websites that link to copyrighted materials. Critics of the legislation say the Bills have the potential to alter the way business is conducted on the Internet and bring about unwanted censorship and regulations.
Back in India, a similar news had hit us a few weeks back. Certain websites were asked to remove “objectionable material” or face censorship as they do in China.
Now, what is the definition of “objectionable material”?
“We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us,” IT and communications minister Kapil Sibal had maintained while talking about the government’s objections to certain material on certain websites, which, according to it, could spread disharmony. “We will certainly evolve guidelines to ensure that such blasphemous material is not part of content on any platform.”
The minister had, however, denied a New York Times report that claimed the government wanted to “censor” user contents. “This is far from the truth. (But) If someone does not wants to remove this kind of incendiary material then the government has to do something about it,” said Sibal.
India is a democracy. Or is it? Is the largest democracy in the world going the autocratic way on the lines of what China and Iran do? Are they trying to stifle criticism against a political dynasty? According to many critics, the move has strong political overtones.
Google and Facebook have acknowledged that some of the articles were “objectionable” but the Internet was too big for them to control and that they cannot protect its politicians. The two Internet giants are among 21 companies that have been asked to develop a mechanism to block objectionable material in India. ”No human interference is possible and, moreover, it can’t be feasible to check such incidents… We cannot control a billion minds,” Mukul Rohtagi, counsel for Google India, acknowledged before the Delhi High Court.
Internet is a powerful medium. With the advent of computers and Internet, the world has become one, in many ways. The ‘playing field’ has been levelled. Today, people across the world have instant access to information and knowledge. We know the weather in Alaska or the culture of people living deep inside Africa. We can get the recipe of any dish in the world and one can share one’s happiness, joys, and insecurities, get questions answered from people across the world. At any given point of time, you know you can reach out for any kind of information at the click of the button.
But this also means we get to know faster about corporate scams, political corruption and government oppressions. And we also know what information and Internet can do — just look at the popular political uprisings in the Arab world in the last one year.
I agree with Google. The world is and should be open and free. Since we are a democracy and freedom of speech is our fundamental right, we should not control the Internet. This is one world where one can say what one feels, what one likes. Do we really want to join the bandwagon of countries like China, Iran, Pakistan or North Korea?
Facebook is among 2,600 sites that are blocked in China. They also filter Google and scores of other websites. A similar thing happens in the entire Islamic world. We have minimum, highly censored-material coming out of North Korea. Why should the governments decide which websites people should or should not visit?China’s logic is it wants to allow its own cyber industry to flourish. Not a bad idea. But, it restricts the interaction among people and also relive the concept of “frog in the well”.
Content related to Nazism and Holocaust denial are blocked in France and Germany. These events are part of history and everyone should have access to all kinds of information on these events.
Does blocking objectionable content really help? If any event or news in important enough for people to take note of, there are other means taking it to the public at large. After all, the Talibans didn’t have Internet to spread their message among the people. Neither did Hitler.
So, in the end it’s the people who decide what they want to believe and follow. Governments across the world need to have faith in their people, face facts and not live in constant denial.
Internet provides us with freedom to get knowledge, to mix with people across the world, to learn about the world and enhances our freedom of expression and well-being. Social networking sites, search engines and phones should not be controlled or filtered. This is just a denial of the basic tenet of freedom of speech and right to expression. Let’s not throttle the freedom of the Internet and its use because of human narrow-mindedness.