Centre for Internet & Society

Do we need a cyber Big Brother watching us? A look at both sides of the coin.

In the summer of 2009, a hue and cry was raised by netizens when the Government blocked a hugely popular adult-oriented cartoon site called Savitabhabhi.com. The site was blocked after complaints that Savita Bhabhi's lurid tales were highly offending to the sensibilities of those grounded in Indian traditions. Those who opposed the move said that this was done without granting the creators an opportunity to defend their right to freedom of expression.
Recent ruffles

A similar brouhaha erupted recently when Communication and IT Minister Kapil Sibal, in a hurriedly called press conference, announced that the Government will bring in a law to pre-filter content posted on social networking Web sites. The trigger for this was certain pictures, with religious connotations, uploaded on various social networking sites including Facebook and Google Plus. Sibal claims that despite Government appeals the Web site refused to remove the content.  If the new law is implemented, your status updates or videos will be screened by the internet company for objectionable content before it is published.

The move has angered Internet users, promoters of free speech and social networking companies. “As it is the status of freedom of speech in India is in a bad shape. Sibal's new rules will only make it worse,” says Sunil Abraham, Executive Director, Centre for Internet and Society.

Abraham's point is buttressed by a report from the United Nations Democracy Fund called ‘Freedom on the Net 2011' which gives Indian Internet usage a “partly free” status clubbed along with the likes of Egypt, Jordan, Rwanda and Venezuela.

“Pressure on private intermediaries to remove certain information in compliance with administrative censorship orders has increased since late 2009, with the implementation of the amended IT Act.  While some observers acknowledge that incendiary online content could pose a real risk of violence, particularly given India's history of periodic communal strife, press freedom and civil liberties advocates have raised concerns over the far-reaching scope of the IT Act, its potential chilling effect, and the possibility that the authorities could abuse it to suppress political speech,” the report says.
User content removal

When Google began reporting government requests for data and content removal in early 2010, India ranked third in the world for removal requests and fourth for data requests. Between July 1, 2009, and December 31, 2009, India had submitted 142 removal requests.   By June 2011, the Internet search giant received requests from the Indian government to remove 358 items. In a breakdown of reasons for such requests, 255 items were classified under the “government criticism” category. In May 2008, two men were arrested and charged for posting derogatory comments about Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi on Orkut. There are many other instances of Government intervention over the past 3 years.

Those who support monitoring argue that content on social media network should be scanned because the users are not responsible enough. California-based media commentator Andrew Keen blames the Internet users in a book called The Cult of the Amateur where he writes that technology has fostered a “dictatorship of idiots”. “.....the masses are liable to be further vulgarised by the overwhelming surfeit of their own voluntary contributions, which are inherently without value (otherwise they wouldn't have been offered freely). Without cultural elites empowered to control public discourse and deify their chosen superstars, the monkeys are running the show,” Keen declares.

Abraham says this argument is flawed because there is no empirical evidence to determine that people use the Internet for a single purpose. “There is no cause and effect here. People may use the Internet for anything ranging from pornography to science. One cannot generalise user behaviour. If Internet was a tool for the Egypt uprising, the same may not work in some other country,” says Abraham.
Monitoring issues

Then there are others who want the social network Web sites to take some responsibility. Rajesh Chharia, President of the Internet Service Providers Association thinks that multi-national Internet firms cannot get away by saying that they conform to standards of their country alone.

But experts feel that it is practically impossible for any social networking Web site to monitor everything that's posted on their site due to sheer volume. For instance, YouTube has 48 hours of videos uploaded every minute and Facebook has 38 million users in India posting thousands of pictures and messages every day. “The Internet is like a sea, you just cannot control everything that's thrown into it unless you man the entire coastline. Even if you block someone from posting content on one site, they will find another way to get in,” said one of major Internet firms.

Meanwhile the Savita Bhabhi site is back with all new content at a new address. So much for the Government's desire to monitor the Internet.

This article by Thomas K Thomas was published in the Hindu Business Line. Sunil Abraham was quoted in this article. Read the original here