Internet is here to stay in India. Yet the highly diverse Indian society presents a challenge to internet which is unique to the country. No other country has a set of dynamics and variables similar to India and so web based businesses and services do not really have a point of reference to deal with them. Internet penetration is rapidly increasing in the country and the potential is such that no web based enterprise can ignore this market either.
So what do they do? In December 2011 two separate cases have been filed against big-name internet entities, which accuse them of providing a platform to spread obscene, anti-religious and anti-social content. The sites were ordered to remove the above mentioned content and to ensure that similar content is not published henceforth. The list sites which were at the receiving end include Facebook, Google and Orkut. The directive of the Delhi civil court in this matter echoes the sentiments earlier expressed by Kapil Sibal, the minister of communications and information technology.
The minister had called for the social media site to develop a mechanism to pre-screen content published on their platform. Various media activists termed this as a form of censorship and expressed concerns that this would impede the right to freedom of expression, which is every Indian citizen’s constitutional right. For a certain section of India the thought of censoring social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Google might seem ludicrous, but there is another (and much larger) section of India which is taking its first steps into the world of social media and internet per se. This section is not yet used to the uninhibited conversations and dialogue that take place on these mediums. It is often a shock for them and they need to be initiated into the medium with a certain degree of restrain. The restrain cannot be in terms of restricting their access as that would also be unconstitutional. So, basically we are at a juncture where it is imperative to decide on a course of action. This action should neither be deemed as a form of censorship nor should it lead to alienation of a large section of the country.
This argument is not based on just hypothetical possibilities. There have been incidents which have caused distress and in a few cases crossed the threshold. Hate comments against the Hindu holy scripture Bhagavad Gita on Facebook and a discussion group called ‘I Hate Gandhi’ on the social network led social activists to file complaints. They alleged that it could trigger communal riots. That is an extreme view but even if such content creates discomfort for a group of users, then that is reason enough to find a way to either remove it or to monitor it. It is also important that active social media users are educated about the etiquette of the medium and also made aware of the measures they can take against obscene content or cybercrime right then and there. Facebook lets users report obscene content from a particular user, who would subsequently be blocked or banned from the network for repeat offense.
The number active internet users are rapidly increasing in India. At its current level only 8% – 10% of the total population has access to internet, with number broadband connections being a minuscule part of that. Yet Indiais already has the third highest number of internet users, after USA and China. In the near future Indiawill easily surpass USAand give a tough competition to China in terms of the total number of internet users. Internet usage on mobile phones is more prevalent, at present. There are over 900 million mobile connections and growing. Indians are the second biggest group on Facebook as well. At last count more than 25 million Indians were on Facebook. The numbers are only going to rise in the future. Keeping this eventuality in mind it is nearly impossible to expect that social media sites will be able to either manually pre-screen all content published (as Mr. Kapil Sibal has suggested) or prevent certain objectionable content finding a way on to the platform once in a while.
There is no easy solution to this issue. It is both complicated and sensitive. A healthy dialogue between all the stakeholders is necessary. Each side needs to air their views and concerns. An amicable solution, which is not against any of our constitutional rights and also does not lead to disharmony in society, needs to be drawn out.
What are your views? Do you think this issue of objectionable content of platforms like Facebook or Twitter is really as serious as it is made out to be?