Policing the ‘net

Kapil Sibal’s latest demand that Social Media screen content has stirred that proverbial hornet’s nest of the mishmashed discussion of the most contentious Internet buzzwords – “values”, freedom of speech, privacy, policing , “censorship” – and all the jingo-ism that goes with them.

A pragmatic way to look at it would be to talk about  the architecture of a system, the hierarchy that is implicit in that system, and the value decisions that architecture and hierarchy implies.

We all crow about the architecture of the internet – about its flatness, its freedom. However, if we think about it, this flatness/freedom is just on the surface. We must remember, there are very few Wikipedias. Most “platforms” for interaction or information are owned and run by the private sector who have shareholder/balance sheet imperatives.

For their part these private sector players can only function under the large superstructure of the political economy. There are certain rules and laws defined by the superstructure of that political economy. Those rules must be followed – and we are often thankful for them.

When it comes to the enduser’s discussion on freedom/privacy must be predicated by the knowledge that, as long as the “providers” of this freedom are in themselves governed upon, our freedom/privacy is also a function of the decision of that superstructure.

*Side-Note* – At the same time, this whole talk about privacy is completely skewed – how can we talk about privacy for what we have essentially put up for public display?How can we talk about privacy when all our data is used by these platforms to sell to advertisers? *end-note*

The architecture of the internet in itself is value neutral. In other words there is nothing inherent on the internet which stops you from doing this for example. However we depend on the the political economy to afford certain guidelines which it deems are against a defined moral value. Pedophilia and child p0rn for example. the only reason they dont exist (or are “hard to find”) is because they are illegal and this guideline must be followed in all cases. or Does banning childporn form an outrageous “fascist” indicator of Big Brotherly Censorship?

Or take the case of National Security – if google maps shows the indian army barracks positions on our borders – would the government be right in asking for its removal, citing national security?

There is obviously a problem that comes in with this of course which is – where does the government draw the line. And once the line is drawn how is it implemented? should a wikipidia-esque self policing for example, become a norm?

The more overarching question is the question of true freedom. Even if the internet is able to miraculously self-regulate, it still exists within a a political/economic superstructure, and will be defined by that hierarchy – how can the internet be made free of that?

That will be the discussion of another post – for now id like to leave you with some food for thought –

– Was the “usage of social media” “right” during the jasmine spring? how about during the london riots? was it “right” then? WHats the difference between the two?

– How do you define Freedom of Speech. Is anything but complete freedom of speech acceptable to you?

ooh! chck out @angadc’s article about roughly the same areas – its a great read!


About Tarun

Joker, smoker, midnight toker. Teacher, writer, general gadabout
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11 Responses to Policing the ‘net

  1. Kanabar says:

    Taking a cue from what you call the ‘providers’ of the freedom, the beauty of the internet clearly lies in the fact that these providers can easily be bypassed. The internet provides a platform for a lot of information to be made public that would have otherwise been 1) impossible to do without risking lives or 2) impossible to do at all.

    Childp0rn is, well, disgusting for reasons that don’t justify their documentation anyway. Even without the advent of the internet, childp0rn would be disgusting so there isn’t an argument to be had there. But as far as other, less mainstream crime-like meme-based horrors go, the government really doesn’t need to give a shit, no? Almost any and all discussion of censorship of the internet is a blatant subversion of the medium, just like the pulling of content off popular websites to protect them from a lawsuit.

    Also, IMO, privacy and freedom are entirely different debates. The hierarchy is central to the privacy argument, while as far as freedom of expression goes, the internet is indeed pretty flat.

    • Tarun says:

      great to hear from you vineet!

      did you click on the link? the value neutral nature of the internet allows that to happen but is it “right”? who decides it?

      I dont think the question is about the massive plusses of the net. I think the concern is should we remain value neutral and have really “free” information? because as soon as any value-driven “censorship” is done, its a slippery slope.

      Take negative externalities like terrorist networks recruiting through social media. The architecture allows that to happen, but should the political superstructure within which the system exists allow it too? or is it their democratic responsibility to do exactly the opposite?

      Or take the gigantic discussion on filesharing, piracy and IP – just by dint of the fact that the architecture allows it, does it mean it is outside the “legal framework” of the political structure?

      Its been a while, btw!

      • Kanabar says:

        Been a while indeed!

        I clicked on the link, and stuff like that is largely contextual. To be crude, it can be simply put as the outliers in a society obsessed with losing weight, once again, just reflecting what people otherwise are thinking of. Cognizance has to be given to the fact that the 24×7-ness of the internet provides for an almost out-of-body connected consciousness, the pros and cons of which are somewhere in the article you linked at the end there.

        The file-sharing debate is resolved in my head as the industry embracing the immense range and immediacy that the internet provides in lieu of sales numbers. In my head, the internet marks an ungoverned area that’s up for everyone to use really. No amount of censorship, or control over content by the government is really going to deter real life motives of people. It’s an elaborate exercise in utmost vanity by any democratic government to realistically expect pre-screening of content by internet companies that are tuned to an entirely different ethic.

        The internet is opinions offered. In a world where we disregard the negative externalities of stuff like having to go to work everyday, those associated with the internet hardly deserve a ceding to the powers that be encroaching. The entire value neutrality of the internet kinda originates from the free-ness of the medium. The end-user picks and chooses according to a deeply personal morality.

  2. The present understanding of Freedom of speech is that “Its okay as long as its nothing bad about me/my party/my state/my Country” So when someone is going to say something its certain that it is going to be opposed by another set of people who may feel offended.

    • Tarun says:

      of course, but the question remains that if the “drawing of the line” is subjective then its a slipperly slope

      if we want an objective parameter then what are our options – either absolutely no policing – let the chips fall where they may.

      Or perhaps the government can learn from wikipedia…

  3. Agree to your POV. But the most important underlying point is that people in general have extreme opinions about everything these days. While you say that Kapil Sibal is right, it is essential to note that it’s for the people to ‘draw the line’ which is impossible to ever happen. Say out of 100, 99 people act in a sensitive manner, there is going to be that one asshole who is going to go berserk with FB hate pages, hate tweets lambasting a particular community or person or some country.

    It opens a whole new can of worms in terms of how we act & behave as a society. I don’t know how things would change for good. It’s too much of a head-ache.

    PS: there’s a repetition of phrase in 2nd para, first line: “would be to talk about would be to talk about”

  4. Rahul says:

    I agree with the first comment in the fact that the issue of privacy is largely separate from that of freedom and censorship. You’re right to say that one cannot expect something to be private when she shares it to be publicly viewable on the internet. Issues of privacy arise when the government tries to access information which is not public, such as your email and phone conversations or in cases like this (http://mashable.com/2010/11/01/india-rim-agreement/) when they wanted access to encrypted personal information without the need for a warrant.
    To answer your third question first, I think that the freedom of expression should be absolute. Any restrictions placed on it will be misused by those who have the power and authority to do so. This, however, is an idealistic view it. I understand, at the same time, that the populace of this country are not mature enough for an absolute freedom of expression to exist and that expressing certain opinions, whether they are political, religious or even personal, can have consequences such as riots that we all want to avoid. Therefore, we trust the system to restrict this freedom.
    The problem when it comes to internet censorship, is that our laws around it are vague and ambiguous, and that leaves too much room for them to be exploited. Take this list of banned websites in India, for example (http://www.cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/rti-response-dit-blocking). There is not enough justification for some of these websites to be blocked.
    I think the internet should remain free and value-neutral. Yes, this allows morally questionable content to exist but we really need to count on the internet to self-regulate here. If you google “suicide”, two of the first three results are websites trying to prevent you from killing yourself. The third, is the wikipedia article for suicide. Yes, this also means that people can break the law using the freedom of the internet. You’ve given the examples of terrorist groups recruiting over social media and piracy. But one can break these laws outside the internet as well. The focus should be on specifically targeting the people breaking the law.

  5. self-regulation is the way to go! wikipedia is an excellent example. while the educated elites in south asia have shown a distinct lack of appetite for voicing their opinions on the streets (barring a few anna hazare rallys), the internet is their natural domain. one assumes that most internet users in India are somewhat educated, share mostly common values, and can therefore collectively determine what is acceptable to the greater majority in terms of online content!

  6. Rahul says:

    I read an excellent article on firstpost.in about entire censorship scene that Kapil Sibal has created. I think you all should read it if you have the time and tell me if you agree with what the last three paragraphs say.

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