Centre for Internet & Society

Why is there a constant brouhaha in India about online censorship? What must be done to address this?

Sunil Abraham's article was published in the Economic Times on December 2, 2012.

Of course, we must get the basics right — bad law has to be amended, read down by courts or repealed, and bad implementation of law should be addressed via reform and capacity building for the police. But most importantly those in power must understand how to approach the regulation of speech.

To begin with, speech is regulated across the world. Even in the US — contrary to popular impression in India — speech is regulated both online and offline.

However, law is not the basis of most of this regulation. Speech is largely regulated by social norms. Different corners of our online and offline society have quite complex forms of self-regulation.

The harm caused by speech is often proportionate to the power of the person speaking — it maybe unacceptable for a politician or a filmstar to make an inflammatory remark but that very same utterance from an ordinary citizen may be totally fine.

To complicate matters, the very same speech by the very same person could be harmful or harmless based on context. A newspaper editor may share obscene jokes with friends in a bar, but may not take similar liberties in an editorial.

The legal scholar Alan Dershowitz tells us, "The best answer to bad speech is good speech." More recently the quote has been amended, with "more speech" replacing "good speech".

Censorship by the state has to be reserved for the rarest of rare circumstances. This is because censorship usually results in unintended consequences.

The "Streisand Effect", named after the singer-actor Barbra Streisand, is one of these consequences wherein attempts to hide or censor information only result in wider circulation and greater publicity.

The Maharashtra police's attempt to censor the voices of two women has resulted in their speech being broadcast across the nation on social and mainstream media. If the state had instead focused on producing good speech and more speech, nobody would have even heard of these women.

Circumventing Censorship

Peer-to-peer technologies on the internet mimic the topology of human networks and can also precipitate unintended consequences when subject to regulation. John Gilmore, a respected free software developer, puts it succinctly: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

Most of the internet censorship in the US is due to IPR-enforcement activities. This is why Christopher Soghoian, a leading privacy activist, attributes the massive adoption of privacy-enhancing technologies such as proxies and VPNs (virtual private networks) by American consumers to the crackdown on online piracy.

In India, and even when the government has had legitimate reasons to regulate speech, there have been unintended consequences.

During the exodus of people from the North-east, the five SMS per day restriction imposed by the government resulted in another exodus from SMS to alternative messaging platforms such as BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), WhatsApp and Twitter.

In both cases the circumvention of censorship by the users has resulted in a worsening situation for law-enforcement organisations — VPNs and applications like WhatsApp are much more difficult to monitor and regulate.

Mixed Memes

Regulation of speech also cannot be confused with cyber war or security. Speech can occasionally have security implications but that cannot be the basis for enlightened regulation.

A cyber war expert may be tempted to think of censored content as weapons, but unlike weapons that usually remain lethal, content that can cause harm today may become completely harmless tomorrow. This is unlike a computer virus or malware. For example, during the exodus, the online edition of ET featured the complete list of 309 URLs that were in the four block orders issued by the government to ISPs.

However, this did not result in fresh harm, demonstrating the fallacy of cyber war analogies. A cyber security expert, on the other hand, may be tempted to implement a 360° blanket surveillance to regulate speech, but as Gilmore again puts it, "If you're watching everybody, you're watching nobody."

In short, if your answer to bad speech is more censorship, more surveillance and more regulation, then as the internet meme goes, "You're Doing It Wrong".

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