Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mission Impossible

Tom Cruise should have stayed for this. The American actor, who visited India recently, had a decade ago starred in Minority Report, which was about finding people before they committed a crime or, as it was called, pre-crime.

Not quite as dramatic but we have in India a proposal for pre-screening content by social media providers so that the public may be spared the emotional torture of seeing politicians maligned and religious figures made fun of. So far, so good.

There are several ways to approach the recent comments by Kapil Sibal, the most immediate and obvious of which is to remind him that India is a democratic country where the government of the day should not be trying to curtail free speech. There are already mechanisms in place to act against those who willfully defame or incite violence.

Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar has repeatedly brought this up on Facebook and Twitter, reminding people that the Information Technology Act has provisions for victims to legally pursue action. Others, including popular blogger Shivam Vij, have pointed out that social media is run by the people and they will act upon objectionable content as soon as it is identified by those it offends.

However, before making impassioned arguments that "Kapil Sibal is an idiot", we — the Internet society — need to accept one fact: This is a brave new world with new rules and new tools. Cyber terrorism, online fraud, cyber bullying, viruses and access to child pornography are just some of the many challenges facing us today. These are easily identifiable instances of wrongdoing, and the lines of morality can be easily drawn. It may seem rather obvious, but the truth is that most of us have been using Facebook for not more than 5-6 years, Twitter for even less and, although we swear by them today, we have no idea how these will grow.

Today, most Indians don't have bank accounts (forget about online banking) and less than half of the connected population, over 100 million users, is using even one form of social media. That said, it is obvious that the online world is a good mirror of our real world, where crimes mirror physical crimes and gossip, slander, jokes and news travel through communities.

The difference being speed and spread, but our behavioural characteristics largely remain the same, ev­en as we grapple with new forms of media consumption. However, it is for us and Sibal to understand that the meaning of what is "the government" in this society is also changing.

It seems that a decade ago, governance was easier: news media was not as hysterical and investigative and public opinion was sought every five years. Today, there is instant feedback through the Internet, and the government has been trying to cope and adjust to this suddenly robust citizenry.

In March 2011, at a conference on social media, Sibal expressed doubts about opening up government departments on Twitter and Facebook because of the volume of criticism and insults the move might invite. He suggested that just the way the news media manages to show the government in poor light, it seems the same will happen in the online world. Analogous thoughts in this digital world.

However, he has been unable to fully grasp that citizens using social media to vent their anger or complain is paralleled by their efforts to praise and help. Ask Delhi Traffic Police or India Post about their experiences. And, as much support as India Against Corruption received online, there were questions raised about the validity of the movement and its principal actors as well.

Sibal's comments may have been prompted by hilarious videos of "Manmohan Singham", religious blasphemy or even the success of the Anna Hazare movement — we may never know. But by asking the intermediaries to try and correct the behavioural patterns of people, Sibal has shown a great disdain for them.

When I heard Sibal's comments in March, I had written on my blog about the government and social media, "...It will have to trust its people, and it will have to trust its own ability to respond to the people. Otherwise this system is going to crash".

The crash has happened. The government does not seem interested in responding to people or even trusting its own legal system, but is instead clamping down on them. If Sibal was tweeting along with the online community, this might have been a different conversation.

Under the guise of "cultural sensitivity" (after all, it is the politicians who play on religious and cultural feelings before elections), I think the governing cat is out of the bag. Generation 2.0 is being led by Generation 1.0. A good example of the much-needed new age politician would be Omar Abdullah — Kashmir is always a hot button issue and other users on Twitter might not agree with him but he is part of the new media conversation and that instantly makes him accepted.

Think about it — with a push to connect every village in India, will there be a similar push to limit thoughts of the villagers, now that people can finally hear them? Why couldn't Sibal announce that the government had requested Facebook to take down offensive material, and also urge the online community to flag other such content? Why did he not trust them to respond to him? Or, as one of my friends asked, why did he not raise this issue with regard to child pornography, which is truly offensive, instead of what seems like a move to protect his boss?

Punishment for unacceptable behaviour is justified. At the same time, it is wrong to try to "shield" the society from it, if that is the case, because it realises its own acceptance of morality and acceptability when it is faced with unpardonable actions (for which the perpetrators are then punished).

In a democracy, the state works with the citizen. This is why we have ministers for law and technology, but not ministers for morality. This is also why pre-crime didn't work in Minority Report, and pre-screening won't work here either.


egg style said...

Minority Report portrays the absurdity of a dystopic future in which the State jails ‘pre-criminals’, those who are allegedly about to commit a crime soon. But it also makes a secondary point: your acceptance of what is conventional wisdom of the times could change if you yourself become a victim of it (as Tom Cruise does). Now, censorship is bad news, pre-censorship even worse. But, to my mind, we still need to spare a thought for victims of internet malfeasance.

Freedom of expression is excellent stuff, and have sworn by it all along, but let’s face it, the idea is still marked by frightful asymmetries of expressive power. Those who exert dominance, those with the loudspeakers, so to speak, insist on their freedom to say whatever the hell they like. Those who are less privileged in accessing the ears and eyes of others (and have much at risk in being frank), must often suffer what these blarers keep blaring in silence.

Freedom from religious tyranny was the original point of this freedom, as apparent in this passage from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (a text one need not entirely agree with, by the way, since he was under-informed on some aspects of what he talks about): ‘The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it had taken place… had so effectually prohibited, by pains and penalties, every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow. Human inventions and priest-craft would be detected; and man would return to the pure, unmixed, and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more.’ Make what you will of Paine’s fond hopes (or his dream of a ‘return’), his second revolution never really happened. Sadly, what is clear from much of what we see today being undertaken in the name of freedom of expression is that enlightenment ideals have been replaced in large parts of the supposed ‘free world’ (to defend which countless alleged enemies of freedom have been killed with popular approval) by a demonisation project with ‘the other’ as its target. [This is ironic, given the intellectual spark of the West’s enlightenment.] So, sure, while we must trust the finer judgment of net-surfers to assess truth and falsehood for themselves, the sheer heft and resources of this hate project makes one wonder if all all-out support for ‘freedom of expression’ is not the internet-age equivalent of going by the West-dictated conventional wisdom of the times.

Let’s be clear. Hillary’s speech at The Hague, made within hours of the Sibal controversy, on web freedom did have its moments, and she was right about the need to keep the internet open. No issue there. Also, all in all, it is still people at large who are better entrusted than governments with upholding values that help humanity do itself proud. But how hard are these people really thinking? How free are their minds anyway?

Anonymous said...

Ya, so 'Muslims' are this millennium's 'Jews'.

So what else is new? How is Sibal and other liberal types gonna help?