Taming Social Media
The CD controversy involving Congress member of Rajya Sabha Abhishek Singhvi has once again raised the question whether it is time to regulate “the new media”, particularly the “social media” such as Google, Twitter, Myspace, Facebook, bogging etc. Singvi, who has since quit as chairman of Parliament’s standing committee on Law and Justice and spokesperson of the Congress party, has blamed the social media, which literally made the Delhi High Court’s order of blocking the display of the CD portraying him negatively in print and television irrelevant. The CD was “giving a cause of action only to aggrieved family members (who have stood completely by me) and to no one else”, he said, adding, “either the CD is morphed or it is not. In either event, it raises no public interest issue, yet evokes salacious private and prurient interest and contumacious internet violation of a flagrant kind”.
Just mark the words “contumacious internet violation of a flagrant kind”. To the best of my knowledge, there are no codified rules or laws of Internet as yet in India that have been “violated” in this case. Many authoritarian countries in the world such as China, North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have some laws that regulate social media. But no leading country in the “Free World” has done so, even though, as I will explain below, authorities have attempted on occasions to silence the social media and punish those using the medium by citing “law and order”, “national security”, “public decency” and “individual privacy” factors.
Only recently, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee drew flak from the civil society and intelligentsia when her Police arrested and tortured Ambika Mahapatra, a professor of Physical Chemistry in the Jadavpur University. What was the Professor’s crime? He had simply distributed emails containing cartoons showing a distraught Dinesh Trivedi being sacked from the Railways Ministry for hiking the railway fair by Ms. Banerjee. Similarly, the Union Information and Technology minister Kapil Sibal had tried not long ago “to devise guidelines on content” of the social media after coming across some material that were remotely seen as insulting to his party supreme Sonia Gandhi. He met executives from Google and Facebook and directed them to remove offensive and abusive speech online. But for many Indians, this directive was seen as silencing their voice.
And as if all this is not enough, Press Council of India Chairman Justice Markandey Katju has asked the government to form a committee to place restrictions on the social media which he thinks is “often acting in an arbitrary and irresponsible” way. In a letter to Kapil Sibal, Katju said that a panel should be immediately set up “so that the social media can be regulated and suitable legislation be initiated on the basis of the recommendations of this committee.” According to him, “unless this is done irreparable damage may be done to individuals or to society, as the material shown may be inflammatory or defamatory or otherwise harmful to people.”
In Britain and the United States, both, like India, great democracies, have witnessed restrictions, or attempts at imposing them, of a different kind. During the race-riots in the streets of the United Kingdom last year, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested “banning” social media. He believed that the looters and rioters used social media, mainly BlackBerry Messaging and Twitter, to coordinate their movements and propel the riots, which resulted in loss of lives and properties. His theory was that cutting off access to the sites would prevent rioters and looters from communicating and coordinating their activities.
Similarly, in San Francisco of the United States last August, the authorities of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) blocked wireless signals at four stations to undermine expected protests over a fatal police shooting. Police had shot and killed a man they said was brandishing a knife. Officials then began to believe a public protest was developing. So, they blocked wireless signals for a few hours on August 11 in an attempt to thwart it. They justified the decision as “to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform”.
In both Britain and the U.S. the above incidents have been largely disapproved by the public. The official explanations are being seen as echoes of actions taken by the authorities in China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran to stifle free expression through government-ordered shutdowns of digital media in those countries. There are merits in the argument that blocking social media and mobile phones is similar to the old-school jamming of radio signals during combat to disrupt the enemy’s communications. But now the lines of communication are so diverse and portable that jamming them all is next to impossible. Anyone with a smart phone can carry access to Facebook and Twitter in a pocket, and the sites are also as big as life on tablet computers. By its very nature, technology is always evolving. There will always be ways to circumvent the restrictions on the liberty. In fact, we are now coming across books teaching us “how to unblock the sites”.
The point that I am making is that one cannot suppress popular movements technologically. History has shown us that freedom seekers at different points in time have adopted different means to organise themselves. In that sense, it was wrong on the part of Cameron to contemplate banning social media, whereas the correct approach would have been to deal with the real factors that led to race-riots. It is not that rioters had legitimate reasons to do what they did. In fact, in this column I had pointed out then that there was something wrong with the way the social benefits in Britain were being managed as that system was doing more harm than good to the youth from the immigrant-communities. It was essentially a problem that needed political decisions, not technology-denial, for a lasting solution.
Technology is essentially value-neutral. It can be used as well as abused. For instance, if social media helped the rioters in Britain to organise themselves, it also helped the ordinary people in taking prompt remedial measures such as calling the police and fire tenders. It facilitated the community-policing. To give a very simple and homely example, kitchen-knife is meant for cutting vegetables; but it can be misused as a life-taking weapon. Should we then throw away all the kitchen knives? In other words, one cannot find fault with technology just because it would be possibly misused. Take the BART case in San Francisco. It impeded the ability of protesters to communicate on the belief that they would create problems. In effect, it was punishment for “speculative”, not real, behaviour.
Secondly, beyond the technical complexities, blocking and regulating social media raise serious questions about civil liberties. They collide directly with privacy rights. Social networking is a kind of social discussion or social dialogue. It is an e-platform where everyone has the right to express his or her opinion. And all this adds to the strength of the nation, not otherwise. True, some will abuse the platform. Some will assert their rights without restraint and accountability. But then, one has to take the overall view that allowing freedom of expression is better than tolerating a repressive society or government. I know that as an editor my job will be in jeopardy if social media where anybody can contribute anything without any restraint and editing becomes the order of the day. But then, I can live with that prospect by keeping the big picture in mind.
Of course, I will support the government’s right to curb freedom of expression in the name of national security provided it convinces that its absence shall threaten the territorial existence of the country and its civilisational ethos. But unfortunately, in India, it has not been the case. Mostly, the government tries to restrict the media to protecting itself from embarrassment or divulgence of corrupt practices, or to defend a particular ideological mindset.
By Prakash Nanda