Censorship and democracy do not mix. Democracy is about freedom—freedom to express, to live, to assemble, to move, to believe in any faith, to be what one wants to be. Censorship, on the other hand, does nothing but impose restrictions upon these liberties.
Ideally, as the world’s largest democracy, India should be the very opposite of countries like China—a single party state—in terms of its policies and practices (China reigns supreme in the art of Internet censorship: all pages are filtered and “objectionable content”, like the words “torture” and “Tiananmen” and sites like Youtube and Facebook, is blocked. This is all carried out by the authorities to keep the people in firm control).
However as Shivam Vij, a prominent activist and blogger, recently said, “We are not China yet…but we are getting there.” Indeed, this is a view that many people have come to share, mainly because of the government’s recent behavior regarding censorship and people’s rights, especially with respect to the Internet.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. However, restrictions are sometimes imposed on some content so as to prevent communal tension, given the country’s messy history of such conflicts. While this is indeed a matter of great debate, censorship for this reason is still justifiable, if not desirable. What is definitely not desirable is the government’s developing stance on internet censorship.
Internet censorship has been practiced regularly by both state and central governments over the years, however the past few weeks have shown an alarmingly high surge in censorship—both in the quantity of blocked pages and the effectiveness of the censoring.
Due to the current ethnic violence and mass migration in the northeast, the government enforced censorship on the content of websites like Facebook and Google. Twitter, when asked to block certain accounts, including some that openly impersonated that of the Prime Minister and others that made fun of him, at first out rightly refused. This led to threats of legal action by the government. Finally, Twitter submitted to government demands and is now working with them to block “objectionable” content.
The government defended its actions by saying that they were carried out in an effort to prevent the dissemination of hate speeches and rumors that were causing widespread panic and inciting people to migrate.
It also refuses to call its actions “censorship”. Kapil Sibal, Minister of Communications & IT, said that the government is looking for a “permanent solution” to the “problems” that internet freedom poses—this sounds ominously like a plan to increase censorship. Indeed, many people fear that the government will use this incident as an excuse to gain tighter control over the Internet and perhaps over other media as well. Already, India has decided to strongly advocate Internet regulation at the level of the United Nations, which means that primary control of sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google would rest with the UN and its member countries.
On August 23rd, a list of pages ordered by the Department of Telecom that were to be blocked by Indian Internet Service Providers was leaked. It includes blog posts, twitter accounts (including those of at least two senior journalists), URLs, image tags, and a few entire websites. Analysis of the more than 300 items has shown that there are major inconsistencies present in the list. The Centre for Internet and Society, which carried out the analysis, found that although the government defended its censorship actions saying that it was preventing false rumors from being spread, many people and posts debunking false rumors had been censored. Also, quite a few links that did not even exist were on the list.
Pranesh Prakash from CIS said, “The blocking of many of the items on that list are legally questionable and morally indefensible, even while some of the items ought, in my estimation, to be removed.” Although the CIS has not publicly released the entire list due to the sensitivity of the issue, it has revealed some websites from which URLs were blocked, including facebook.com, telegraph.co.uk, wikipedia.com, twitter.com, and youtube.com.
Many times in the past, Indian ISPs have blocked entire domains when asked to block only certain URLs, and are known for doing so even today. For example, there are reports of Airtel completely blocking Youtu.be, Youtube’s short URL, in quite a few cities even though it was asked to block only selective URLs.
The Indian people are not the only ones outraged at the government—the U.S. State Department recently asked the Indian government to respect the “full freedom of the Internet”, and many other western governments are equally disapproving of the recent censorship
While the desperation from which this censorship stemmed is understandable, what is not, is the government’s eagerness and readiness to do so and the easiness of doing so.
When governments in countries like China and Ethiopia censor the Internet, they cite reasons similar to those mentioned by the Indian government—that the possibilities of free discussion pose threats to national stability. Many people say that this is just an excuse to extend oppression and tyranny to the online world, and well…they’re probably right.
The recent revolutions in countries like Egypt and Tunisia were triggered and fueled by the Internet; people shared their views and made their protest plans mainly through networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. Technology may be disruptive, but there is no question that in the long term it is the great equalizer. Without the freedom to get the most out of technology, Indians will no doubt suffer. Perhaps censoring discussion and information on such major issues will actually prevent India from dealing with and confronting them as well as it could have done with the help of the Internet. Many agree that freedom of speech is actually very important during a crisis, as people need to be able to communicate and gather reliable information about the process of events. \ The roots of the problem here lie not with the Internet, but with others—the media, the government, and the people. The media needs to focus on effectively communicating news that will help to salvage crises instead of sensationalizing news items and exacerbating crises.
The government is always slow to take notice of and respond to any type of conflict, and so needs to hasten its responsive skills and tactics. As a matter of fact, why doesn’t the government begin to use the Internet to dispel rumors? If the government is open with citizens about events, rumors will not spread, however if everything is kept under wraps it is impossible to stop them from spreading and causing panic.
Finally, the people need to learn to verify information before panicking and causing turmoil; they need to learn to act calmly and sensibly in times of confusion and distress.
So is censorship the solution? Although the government seems to think so, such restriction is not a path Indians want to take. Censorship will set India back and hurt more than it will help.
If the people of India and the rest of the world can see the truth of the matter, why can’t the Indian government? Somebody needs to tell them to wake up and finally adapt to the digital age—governments will come and go, but the Internet is here to stay.