Centre for Internet & Society

I haven't yet heard of anybody in India going on a rampage because somebody in Pakistan started an 'India hate' page. However, I have seen people kill and destroy because they got incited to violence and hatred through offline religious propaganda, cinema and cricket.

I suggest it might be more useful to ban all these three institutions before looking at online networks," says Nishant Shah, Director of Research at Centre for Internet and Society. Shah's sarcastic quote is in response to the Information Technology minister Kapil Sibal's demand earlier this week that Internet companies censor content - leading to a huge outcry both online and offline.

Sibal cites "offensive content" on the internet as the reason for censorship, but what exactly is unacceptable or offensive and, as a noisy democracy, how slanderous are we as a people? What is the modern India's online psyche?

Hindustan Times-C fore survey

For many, India's growing presence on the net - from 97 million earlier in the year to almost 121 million by this year end (IMRB report) -translates into a "vomiting revolution", in the words of Pavan Duggal, Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Chairman, ASSOCHAM Cyberlaw Committee. Accoding to Duggal, "Indians today on social media are vomiting everything about their lives, social, personal, professional, otherwise. It is only a matter of time before people realize what they have said could impact them for times to come."

While Duggal says that "Indians are currently on the learning curve when it comes to behaviour in the online environment and a large number, in emotional states of mind, post information on the Internet which they later regret",  sociologist Susan Visvanathan believes that it's a tool for instant satisfaction, especially the young. "Everyone knows that what goes online is recorded. However, that doesn't stop them from saying what they feel. This is verbosity in another form," says Visvanathan.

The "Argumentative Indian", Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen's book, celebrated the Indian tradition of public debate. But while this culture of discourse is seen in everything from our yap-happy expert panelists on tv to political debate, does the argumentative Indian become an obnoxious, intolerant lout when unmonitored online?

According to Mahesh Murthy, online marketing expert, this is not true. "The young generation believes in live and let live. They respect opinions, and move on," says Murthy.

In India, everything from our history, cross border issues, nationalism, cricket, bollywood, religion, society and politics stirs emotions says Tarun Abhichandani, Group Business Director of the research firm IMRB International - "but it is the net that has the power to give it a cascade effect." As examples, Abhichandani refers to Kolaveri Di or content such as the anti-islamic post on FB which reportedly led to riots on the street in Dungarpur.

Here's where some people believe that the net becomes "tricky." Of religious discussion, says Abhichandani, "online we tend to be obnoxious when we are put in a setting where we need to differentiate ourselves from others."

However, defenders of net freedom - and they seem to far outnumber those who prescribe censorship - believe that even online religious dissent is not a cause for concern in a healthy democracy like ours. "The most extreme religious views online are actually from NRIs," says Murthy. He also points to the latest Google Transparency report for India where of the 355-plus items that the government asked to be removed, "only 3 were religious, the rest were political."

A survey conducted by Indiabiz, with a sample size of 1200 of India's youth (18-35 years) found that the youth saw social media as a space for change. Anti-corruption has emerged as the most prominent social cause endorsed by 32 per cent of the respondents.

India with its 100 million internet users comes third after China (485 million) and the US (245 million). In India 65 million of the active Internet users are in urban cities, ie . nearly 35% of the active Internet users are located in top eight metros, (IMRB). In comparison with other south east asian countries there are so many geographies of access and consumption within India for which finding a common spectrum is difficult. According to the latest IAMAI report, in rural India (24 million users), entertainment was the key driver. In urban India, 71 % of internet users indulged in social networking and 64% used internet for educational purposes. Shah however highlights, "One of the biggest differences that we can see is in the linguistic restrictions in India." For countries like China, S. Korea, Japan, Thailand, the web is essentially a local experience with the tools and language localised, while in India, with social media being used primarily in English, it is restricted to the urban elite.

The uprising in the middle east and, in comparison to communist China, which has blocked international social media sites, is something that India won't see for a long time feel experts. "We haven't as yet seen a revolution caused by the internet. The closest we came to it was when the 2G scam broke and the Anna Hazare movement. In Syria, Tunisia etc. because of totalitarian governments, the internet was crucial in the revolution, we are far from that because we are clear of censorship. For now," says Murthy.

Revolutions aside, online intellectual property rights and online slander which are rampant do cause a lot of trouble. "Indians need to believe in legal consequences of their postings," says Duggal who adds that almost six out of ten users in India would have faced some kind of undesirable content directed at them. "We've also seen cases where people, in a fit of anger, publish the most dirtiest of all expletives. People need to appreciate that the Indian Information Technology Act, 2000 has provisions which make such online behaviour unacceptable."

In April this year, the government attempted to put down rigorous laws when the "Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011" was set up. The rules require intermediaries, ie companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo that provide the platform for users to comment and create their own content, to respond quickly if individuals complain that content is "disparaging" or "harassing," among other complaints. If the complainant's claim is valid, these companies must take down the offensive information within 36 hours. And when required, the intermediary shall provide information or assistance to government agencies authorised for investigative, protective, cyber security activity.

However, critics of filtering of content say that most social networks already have evolved guidelines; the law is in place; and also that monitoring of the net is not just required, it is virtually technologically impossible.

While offensive is not an absolute category and because online space transcends national boundaries and puts us together in a non-space, it still is the best platform for public debate, according to most. As says Visvanathan: "The young will always have something to say via arts, music and slogans online. Our online experience reflects the openness of a democracy."

This article by Sharon Fernandes was published in the Hindustan Times on December 10, 2011. Nishant Shah was quoted in this. Read the original in the Hindustan Times here

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