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Mind your language
India’s recent move to ban some Twitter and Facebook accounts to stop hate agenda might be a bark up the wrong tree, but still uses a valid rule

Many would see the Indian government’s recent decision to ban (and later ‘unban’) almost 309 URLs of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter et al in the wake of the unfortunate Assam riots as a blatant ‘violation’ of the freedom of speech ideology. Undoubtedly, the move by the Indian government – which now stands more or less revoked – was nothing but a knee-jerk and shortsighted reaction to contain a rapidly snowballing situation; almost akin to a doctor telling a cancer patient that the best way to cure the disease is to not talk about it to anybody else. Yes, clearly, the Indian government wound itself up trying to first identify which pages were encouraging hate speech, then trying to force foreign based social media sites to block these identified pages, then trying to justify the move to critical commentators and media.

Criticise the government as one may – for not understanding the real reason for riots – but what is quite clear in the midst of all this brouhaha is that the government was legally right in moving against various hate promoting sites. These steps by the government have invited huge criticism from every section of society; but the very intention of the government seems quite clear and unquestionable. India has never witnessed a situation where social media is being misused in such a condemnable manner. Regular hate speech can have a long term effect on sections of the society that are on the web and create negativity in their subconscious mind.

Undoubtedly, the government has taken these steps a bit late in the day, but it has the legal authority and duty to censor content, which might be detrimental to communal harmony. Not only India; the governments of many nations like United States of America, Australia and England have taken similar actions in the past to control violent and hate oriented speech on the web. In US, the House of Representatives recently introduced the “Rogue Websites” Bill that has been supported by many in the house, even though it would force the Service Providers to create a list of banned websites and prevent users of those websites from accessing them. This bill is a version of the Theft of Intellectual Property Act or Protect IP Act introduced in the US Senate earlier.

Minister of State for Communications and IT Sachin Pilot recently said, “India has been pushing for global internet governance at the level of the UN so that control of social media would rest in the hands of UN and its member nations.” But currently, only China supports India on this. In fact, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva passed its first resolution on Internet freedom with a message for all nations to support individual and human rights online in July. Undoubtedly, freedom of expression is critical, but as is the case with the hate messages spread after the Assam riots, a line has to be drawn somewhere. 

Cyber security has remained an area of huge concern for India. Mobiles have penetrated wide and deep in the Indian market, and the rapid rise of smartphones in particular indicates how spreading the right or wrong message has become so much easier. A mobile analytics research firm Flurry has concluded that smartphone adoption today is ten times faster as compared to the PC era in the 1980s. India saw a 171% growth in the number of active smartphone devices for the year ending July 2012 according to the Flurry report. As per eMarketer, social media globally is expected to reach 1.5 billion users in 2012 (1.2 billion in 2011). India is expected to see the fastest growth of51.7% yoy. This underscores the need for these sites to control their content and the government to crack the whip when necessary. The argument obviously gets turned on its head if the government misuses its rights to clamp down legitimate criticism of its own policies/agenda at any time.

By:- Ganesh Kumar Roy

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