Indian Government is the latest to join the war against the virtual world

20 Jan
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“No country, no continent, no geography, just IDs. It lured people in with promises: of faster communication, of networking, of quicker access to information. And after attracting a critical mass volume, it started wielding its power. China fought it frontally, but many monarchs of the Arab world succumbed to its onslaught. The virtual had started threatening the real world and a generation strived to marry the two,” says Sandeep Kalhan, CEO, GTS Technologies, Gurgaon.

The Indian Government is the latest to join the war against the virtual world. A court in India, on Monday, January 16, said that websites, such as Google and Facebook, are liable for the content posted on their platform by users, as they benefit from the content. This is in continuation with the court’s decision to prosecute 21 websites which are hosting “objectionable” content which includes pornographic images of political leaders and pigs running through the holy city of Mecca.

The court has issued an order through the Ministry of External Affairs to 21 overseas companies to be present on the date of hearing on March 13.

In December 2010, 39-year-old journalist Vinay Rai, who works in Akbari, a Urdu weekly, had filed a criminal suit in a lower court against 21 companies on the ground that the websites run by them host blasphemous and derogatory material which could even lead to communal riots.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, after the court accepted his petition of prosecuting these web companies, Vinay Rai said, “The distorted images of Goddess Saraswati, makes me angry. The pictures in cartoons of Prophet Mohammed makes my friends angry. Why can’t the content be screened before being hosted?”

Suresh Kait, the high court judge who was listening to Vinay Rai’s petition against 21 websites, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo, nudged the government to implement China-like law to control the user-generated content. The Justice remarked, “Like China, we will block all such websites.”

Raju Santhanam, veteran journalist and former editor of a leading Indian news channel, says, “On web, it is the death of an editor. We, as broadcast editors, are for self-regulatory mechanism, web needs to find one.”

“There should be some law and it needs to evolve with consultation,” says Pawan Duggal, cyber law practitioner.

But, Zubair Siddique, young social marketing executive from Bengaluru (erstwhile Bangalore, the IT City of India), is aghast by the suggestions, “What is the use of words like freedom of expression if everything is going to be screened? India has over 120 million net users and the number is growing.”

“It’s much more healthier for the rage of that proportion to be vented out on the web and not on the streets,” Siddique asserts.

Joseph Pookkatt, partner, APJ-SLG law firm calls it a knee-jerk reaction from the judge and says, “The Indian Supreme Court has in the landmark case of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) case held that freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions. It would take much more than the threat of a Judge for India to go the China way. This is because, unlike Communist China, India has been and will always be a democracy.”

Virtual is definitely causing turmoil in the real world.

It is not that the real world has not seen conflict because of clash of freedom of expressions. “India was one of the first countries to ban Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie because the book threatened to cause uproar among a sizeable population of the country. The nude pictures of Hindu Goddesses Saraswati painted by, internationally known and India’s pride, painter Maqbool Fida Hussain raised so much of furore that he had to leave his country of origin and take the citizenship of Qatar,” reminds Shisir Basumatari, painter and founder of Flat Cube.

There have been many such instances of literature and art being banned because they hurt the sentiments of few or many. The Danish cartoons of the Prophet, is a case in study.

So the question is if society can handle these problems in the real world, then why can’t it withstand similar expressions on the virtual?  “Probably because, the web connects people;  ideas and expressions, sentiments and reactions, at a speed, which the real cannot imagine. It’s like fast food,” explains, Zoya Nargis, a student of contemporary history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “It is irresistible, but too much of it is not good for you.”

“The problem is that people who have never visited Iraq are expressing strident views about it. People who will find it difficult to put a finger on the map on Egypt are talking about what is happening at Tahrir Square. Credibility of information is a problem,” she adds.

Back in India, people are questioning the real intent of the Government to control the virtual. Between July 2009 and June 2011, Government of India sent more than 300 requests to Google, asking it to remove more than 750 posts.

The reason might be different for different people for wanting to regulate the content on web. But the debate has just started. Post it on twitter, recommend it on Facebook, Digg it, Linked in, Reddit, so on and so forth. But talk to a few friends in the real world before that.

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