The recent attempts by the government of India to block, censor, and ban conversations on the social web have made some things clear. One of them is that the internet has truly arrived in India. When those in Delhi start having their daily goings-on disrupted by a few thousand trolls on a social networking service, I think it is safe to assume that the web has become a force to reckon with in the country. When I was in journalism college, studying the ways of what people called “new media” back then, we were told quite clearly that our department was going to always be secondary to print and broadcast media, given how the internet was unlikely to find widespread acceptance among the nation’s diverse and variously educated people. Less then ten years later, I watch authorities no less than the prime minister and home minister of India having to explain themselves on national television regarding the ways in which their ministries deal with freedom of speech online. Needless to say, it brings me large amounts of heartfelt satisfaction.
Another thing that has become clear following these incidents of censorship is the mommy-like attitude of our ruling classes. For reasons they never explain, our ministers and their ministries insist on deciding what we watch, how we watch it, and on more than one occasion, whether we deserve to watch it at all. This applies across the board and to all media, but is most evident in the case of popular media like TV and the world wide web. Out of nowhere come the “guidelines” and the attempts at “supervision”. Apparently, I can’t be trusted with the responsibility of making decisions regarding my choice of news and entertainment. The government knows better. So I am not allowed access to opinions from a certain political faction because exposure to them might cause me to run down my street and start setting fire to public property. What’s more? This government will not even allow me to read expressions of disagreement, anger, or any manner of general dissatisfaction that the people — my fellow citizens of this country — post on Twitter against this government. Because apparently that too is going to be bad for me, because the only things that are good for me are the things that are good for this government.
Of course, when I say this government will not allow something, I only mean to point a finger at its intent. Actually preventing anything on the world wide web is a way more difficult task than implementing an old-fashioned URL block. A really funny thing about last week’s bans were that the banned parties were telling their followers and friends that they had been banned and the followers, in their turn, were expressing their anguish in the comments to those very same banned items. Nothing was actually banned and no harm was actually done to anyone. The only thing hurt was trust — trust that we, as subjects, are expected to put in our ruling class. With all these attempts at censorship of free speech on Twitter and blogs, what the government seems to be saying is this, “We may have gobbled up billions of rupees in underhand dealings. We may have made a mess of the nation’s economy and image. We may have spent years making fools out of you — our electorate — by getting utter idiots to lead you. But how dare you speak out against it in public! How dare you express anger, anguish, and disappointment in us! This will not be allowed and if you keep doing this, we will not let you talk among yourselves any longer. We know this is tough, but you leave us no choice! Don’t make things any more difficult for us. Just keep taking things lying down like the good little subjects you are.”
If I asked the government to go F itself, I would be speaking for a LOT of people.
The official excuse behind the government’s bans last week was that they were acting to prevent the spread of rumours. Rumours the likes of which emanated in Pakistan and led to violence against north eastern Indians all over India. While this, as a general intention, seems to be a good idea, it also stands to reason that the way the government went about this task was anything but effective. What self-respecting rumour-monger wouldn’t be able to find his way around a damn URL-block? If the government wants to control and supervise the flow of information on the internet (a dubious intention in itself), then the least it needs is know-how regarding how to do it. We have no large-scale cyber-security infrastructure to speak of, no protocols to fall back on, and no… IDEA! The most the authorities end up doing is bullying web services like Facebook and Twitter into “complying” by promising to weed out “objectionable” content as and when it is posted, a feat Facebook and Twitter themselves will find impossible to accomplish unless they actually hire millions of human agents to monitor posted content in real time.
Without express pathways to easy management of the flow of information on the Internet and related streams (like SMS and voice), the government might as well take to calling up terrorist cells and handing them stern warnings. Bans such as last week’s will prove as ineffective as those.
In any case, the very idea of the ruling class deciding which way our rivers of information will flow is shiver-inducing. As it is, for decades now, Indian adults have been watching late night movies with nipples and crotches behind blurred patches of pixels. We are also quite used to watching grown men and women yelling BEEP at each other when they are angry or frustrated. If this same tendency is allowed to take root in matters of the web as well, then we will see something quite different happen. This generation will not get used to it. Instead, it will find ways around it and as a result, will find itself criminalised by the people it voted into power.