Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Please don’t censor the internet…..

Till the time it was just Kapil Sibal (in effect, the government) threatening to censor the internet, it was one thing. It was easy to criticize him and call him old fashioned. Now the courts have started to say the same thing. Why are the Executive and the Judiciary coming together on this issue? Are they reflecting the mood of the common people of this country and our society? And even if they are, is that justification enough for them to censor the internet and take what many are calling a very retrograde move? This post is written out of anguish and anger…..it looks to me to be a losing battle unless we can bring up a miracle.

I can already imagine the war cry that many orthodox people of our country will be raising on this issue. Of course, the internet should be censored. There is porn available freely on the internet. Our youth is getting spoilt by such unhindered exposure to such debauched content. Some will even say that this is the gameplan of the Western powers to influence our culture and eventually take over our youth.

It will hardly be difficult to prove that the charges against Google and other websites are true. Yes, it is true that for someone seeking porn, or fanatical stuff, or anything else that society considers “depraved”, it is freely available on the internet. The charge is 100% true. There is no point even attempting to put up a fight against such an accusation. Surely that is reason enough for the courts to order a clampdown on the net? Since there is a fair degree of censorship on other forms of media – the TV for instance cannot show adult stuff till 11 pm or so and even after that, there are serious restrictions – should there not be censorship (euphemistically called “programming guidelines”) on the internet also? No one can ever win against such arguments. The battle is lost even before it’s begun.

Kapil Sibal must be wringing his hands in joy with the court getting involved in a matter that he first raised. Just a few weeks back, he had himself bared his fangs at social networking sites – supposedly to get even with civil society which had used the internet to put massive pressure on the government during the Anna struggle. He – unfortunately for him and fortunately for us all – played his cards wrong and it appeared as if he was trying to protect the government’s back side, rather than thinking about society’s good. But now with the courts involved, it’s a different matter – its suddenly about morality. It’s about the attack on Indian culture….on the Indian identity itself…..and the damage the identity can suffer thanks to all the uncensored stuff one finds on the internet. When the courts say something, it usually carries a lot more weightage.

First it was the Congress that wanted to censor the internet. But honestly, I don’t expect the BJP to be any different - I can imagine the party supporting the court’s views. I can imagine the Muslim clergy and the Church also supporting the court’s views. I can hear them all screaming: Down with the internet. Let us remain cacooned in our own orthodox past. Leave us alone. We don’t want to become liberal. We don’t want to merge with the rest of the world. Down with the internet.

In what form will this censorship work? Like in Pakistan, will suggestive words like “sex” be banned from being used on the internet? Or will it be worse like in China, where Google had to leave the country and go. So no Google, no twitter, no Youtube, no nothing. In short, India will become another China or another Pakistan or another down-in-the-dumps orthodox and totalitarian regime in the world.

The discussion on censoring the internet is in effect a discussion on what our society stands for. I have said this many times before – that while India is progressing quite rapidly on the economic front, it is not doing so socially. Our society is still stuck in old social mores. The practice of casteism is still fully intact – with maybe….just maybe – a small dent having been made in the biggest metros. We are still very parochial about our religious beliefs and if we were given a chance, we would like to remove the word “secular” from our country’s Constitution. The collective weight of our traditional thinking pulls the country’s liberalism down a few notches every year. We deny MF Hussain the right to paint the way he wants to; Salman Rushdie the right to visit the country; and merrily play our politics on caste and religion lines. There is simply too much to gain and too little to lose for politicians of any party to go along with such retrograde views. Where does that leave the liberal folks of the country?

What about the Constitutional provision of Freedom of Speech. Unfortunately, every clause in the Constitution comes with enough conditionality attached; so any clause can be interpreted in any number of different ways. It can be argued that freedom of speech is great; so long as it doesn’t affect anyone else. But porn and inflammatory religious material on the internet does affect the sentiments of our people and hence there is nothing wrong in curtailing such freedom of speech, some would argue.

What can we do about all this? All that we can do is raise our voice on the internet itself. Create enough social groups; post enough tweets; write enough blogs; so that the loud sound of our protests reaches the courts. It may well be a losing battle, but it must still be fought. This is too important a battle to be lost without a fight. The battle must also be fought legally. If the Delhi HC rules in favor of censorship, we must appeal in the Supreme Court. Maybe a middle ground can be found – where objectionable content is removed when someone complains but no pre-publishing censorship is imposed? That’s how it works in other media. Whatever we do, we cannot take censorship on the net….

The real truth is that the internet is a platform where people express themselves without any restraint. They sometimes vent their anger; sometimes share their joys. In the ultimate analysis, the internet is a social lubricant – bringing together thousands of people who would otherwise find it impossible to meet and exchange ideas. Nothing should be done to stop that. People who use the internet know how to discard lewd stuff. Such stuff is not taken seriously. India must never be seen in the same league as Pakistan and China…..no matter what.

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