Centre for Internet & Society

The recent move by Union Minister Kapil Sibal to engage leading Internet platform providers like Google, Facebook, etc in regulating content has seen netizens react in different manners. The question of freedom of expression vis-a-vis objectionable content has come to the fore. Pranesh Prakash who deals with such issues on a regular basis at the Centre for Internet and Society was answering questions (more like comments) live on CNN-IBN's chat feature on December 7, 2011.

Q: OK... then how about this... People report abuse against a page...and after some hits that report will go to the governmental organization, and they will decide on what action to take... this may include hiring of some IT services company to do that and gives more employment to people too. Anyways thanks for replying to my questions.
Asked by: Tilak Kamath

A: How about just approaching courts, who are in a far better position to judge what is legal and what is illegal under Indian law than any IT services company or government organization.
Q: Suppose a group of rabble rousers does indeed use a forum and become violent, (the group being identifiable) would the state have the right to ask the forum to be discontinued?
Asked by: Zeus

A:  Of course (if what you meant is 'the right to ask the forum to remove the violence-inciting content'). Indeed, this is how ultra-left wing and ultra-right wing publications that advocate violence (which is an imminent threat) are proscribed in India. And the same laws already apply for online fora. But just as you wouldn't ban a newspaper like DNA for carrying an offensive article (such as the anti-Muslim screed written by Subramanian Swamy a few months back), and just as the postal service wouldn't be discontinued for carrying Maoist letters, a forum shouldn't be banned for offensive content. There is no need for a new 'self-regulation code', since the 'report abuse' links found on many of these sites are exactly that: self-regulation.
Q: Article 19(2) of our constitution places arbitrary and subjective restrictions on free speech - public order, decency, morality are all subjective, according to the whims and fancies of those who are in control. Aren't you concerned this is going down the exact path (ignoring that this is impractical to begin with)?
Asked by: Karunakaran

A:  No, because there is a rich jurisprudence laid down by the Supreme Court of what is and what isn't a "reasonable restriction". While I do believe that our Constitution does go beyond what the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which India is a signatory) allows for, Article 19(2)'s interpretation by the Supreme Court and the High Courts have been very progressive for the most part.
Q:  The government has a mandate to govern and keep the society in harmony and take care of law & order... If no check on the expressions of netizens the chances of a spark generating debate can escalate to violence given the extremism we see today. The media in print as well as electronic we know & see does it's CENSORING, calling it as editing and publishing only what it likes and wants.This style is for all including CNN-IBN.The difference is in media, the EDITOR gets responsible in case of offensive or blashphemous material gets published. Social network the responsibility seems missing. Freedom always needs to be enjoyed with discipline. How do you the minority indisciplined netizens, who are there and no denying on that ?

Asked by: sundar1950in

A: I believe that killing speech is not the right way to prevent violence. Indeed, a newspaper editor in the Maldives recently noted that they have had less violence committed against the newspaper office ever since they allowed for online comments. Speech often allows people to vent out violence instead of acting it out. Violence should be curbed by reining in those who're committing it, and those who're inciting it on the ground. At any rate, the laws that apply to inciting violence in print apply to the Web also, and no new rules need to be drafted.
Q:  Thanks for the information on the report abuse button. but can't we have a Governmental agency regulating websites like FB or Google... they can't say no, cos India is a Huge market for such companies.. and why don't we find many ultra offensive posts about the U.S. or other countries, as we find for Indians..
Asked by: Tilak Kamath

A: That would be a very bad idea. Governments don't have a regulatory agency to dictate what letters post-offices shouldn't carry, nor what articles newspapers shouldn't publish. They should definitely not have a regulatory agency dictate what status updates Facebook or Google+ should and shouldn't carry. You don't find ultra-offensive posts about the U.S. because you aren't looking around. They're *everywhere*, even more so than those that bad-mouth India. Yet, such offensive speech is the price we have to pay (gladly, I should add) for democracy and the freedom of speech.
Q:  The idea to ban any post on something that would lead to communal strike is fine however, I feel this is not the intention. The intention is clearly political and due to the Anna movement becoming popular thanks to the posts on the internet as also certain remarks on the Gandhi family in particular and Congress leaders specifically has led to this decision. Kapil Sibal is a smart alec and he knows that this can be used against any adverse comments against them.
Asked by: Arun

A: I am less suspicious of Mr. Sibal. I believe, especially after speaking with some senior lawyer friends of his, that he genuinely believes what he is doing to be required and legal and constitutional, and not for the appeasement of one or two Congress leaders. That, however, does not make his suggested solution correct. Multiple High Courts' decisions have held otherwise, and the Supreme Court's decision in Ajay Goswami v. Union of India also provides them support.
Q: One best possible thing is to advertise the Report Abuse button on the Internet, don't you think so? again there should be proper authentication to do so to avoid miscreants blocking some good pages unnecessarily.
Asked by: Tilak Kamath

A: I believe that the "Report Abuse" option available on most large social media and social network websites is useful, but it is also potentially dangerous since it allows a private party (such as Facebook or Google), rather than a court, to dictate what content is and isn't acceptable, to the possible detriment of larger society.
Q: Good evening sir, my question is that it is legal to pre-screen the private data of users by sites and to interfere between their privacy.
Asked by: Shrey Goswami

A: Whether this proposal by Shri Sibal necessarily involves an invasion of privacy is an open question, since the details of the proposal as as yet not fully sketched out. On Google Plus and Facebook, one can restrictedly share information. Will such restricted sharing also have to be pre-screened, or only information that is going to be available to all members of the public? The proposal still consists only of press articles and a press conference held by the Minister. Even assuming it only require pre-screening of information that is going to be publicly accessible, it imposes too high a burden on intermediaries, and is impractical. And, as you might be aware, only very limited pre-censorship is allowed in India, and such a general requirement of pre-censorship does not seem to be constitutional, in my opinion.
Q: Yes, we were browsing FB yesterday and some content in there, could not be opened in front of my children. So Content is not always good, and there must be some kind of screening. Again, the current trend in India, to think that whatever the government does is not at all a good one. Governing must be left to government and not to news channels/civil society, etc. This looks dangerous, and sad no one is realising this.
Asked by: Narayanan S

A:  Perhaps I should allow former Supreme Court Justice Hidyatullah's words speak for themselves: "Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read." - Justice Hidyatullah in K.A. Abbas v. Union of India. In the Janhit Manch case, the Bombay High Court held: "By the present petition what the petition seeks is that this court which is a protector of free speech to the citizens of this country, should interfere and direct the respondents to make a coordinated and sustained effort to close down the websites as aforestated. Once Parliament in its wisdom has enacted a law and has provided for the punishment for breach of that law any citizen of this country including the Petitioner who is aggrieved against any action on the part of any other person which may amount to an offence has a right to approach the appropriate forum and lodge a complaint upon which the action can be taken if an offence is disclosed. Court in such matters, the guardians of the freedom of speech, and more so a constitutional court should not embark on an exercise to direct State Authorities to monitor websites. If such an exercise is done, then a party aggrieved, depending on the sensibilities of persons whose view may differ on what is morally degrading or prurient will be sitting in judgment, even before the aggrieved person can lead his evidence and a competent court decides the issue. The Legislature having enacted the law a person aggrieved may file a complaint."
Q: Kapil Sibal has not been able to give conviction to objectionable content as social unrest can't take place through web and it needs well oiled machinery and as far as using offensive language against politicians is concerned it won't be curtailed through web and it will require better self regulation among politicians rather than being irresponsible
Asked by: Rij
A: I agree completely.
Q: Do you feel that Government (Congress in particular ) is trying to impose restrictions on social media to stifle the peoples anger against the Government and its leaders due to various scams and corruption?
Asked by: Santosh

A:  No. I am taking Mr. Sibal's words at face value, that what they are trying to prevent is hate speech, inciting speech. Still, the means of doing so are undemocratic, ignorant of how the Internet functions, and liable to have very harmful consequences on our polity.
Q: Are our laws going to be like those in gulf countries with respect to censorship? In the name of communal messages, is there a motive to censor something else?
Asked by: Gaurav

A: It doesn't matter what the 'ulterior motive' is, and I'm not sure there is one. The touchstone should should be that of our Constitution and Article 19(1)(a), which guarantees freedom of speech and expression with the Article 19(2) laying down the reasons for which reasonable restrictions can be laid down. And in many ways our laws are worse than those in Saudi Arabia. There at least when a website is blocked or content removed the public is notified when they try and access the content. In India, there is no such notification.

Q: Is this being done as the politicians on the whole and congressmen in particular are not upon notwithstanding how true the comment is. Is it particular so when they are charry if any adverse comment is made on the Gandhis. All these politicians who have opted for public life need to be open for adverse comments as they are in the public limelight and or it is their privilege.

Asked by: Arun

A: The examples being cited by Kapil Sibal are of harming religious sentiments and inciting hatred. Be that as it may, even if the content deserves to be removed—and I can't comment until I see the content he finds offensive—doing so by mandating pre-censorship by intermediaries with liability fixed on them otherwise is a wrong way of going about it.

* The chat is over. Read the original published in IBN Live Chat here