The Union ministry for information technology has reportedly directed websites, including social media behemoths Google and Facebook, to “screen user content” for material that is insulting or “offensive”. Unsurprisingly, this has set off a storm of protest online, as users of the internet view it as a location where their freedom of speech is largely unconstrained. The government and the ruling party are standing firm, while simultaneously insisting that “there cannot be any other [political party] which believes in transparency, openness and free speech more than [does] the Congress”. Even if that were true, it would reflect poorly not just on other parties, but on the Congress, too — since it seems to have been moved to action mainly by fears that its own leaders were the subject of offensive material.
There is little doubt that the anarchic, utopian ethos with which the internet was founded has not adapted well to its explosive growth. Online content can resemble a free-for-all, with offensive but legal commentary presented indistinguishably from libelous and defamatory statements that would be subject to considerable penalties if available on any other medium. There is, from a logical standpoint, little reason why speech on the internet should be viewed differently from speech on television or in print. Yet, as many an authoritarian state has discovered to its distress, the multi-nodal and decentralised nature of the internet makes it much more difficult to control. That’s why the government has consistently tried to shift the burden of such control and policing on to service providers and host websites like Facebook, Yahoo and Google. These would prefer to think of themselves as telephone operators, not themselves responsible for defamatory or inflammatory information they help someone communicate; the government would like to think of them as publishers, capable of scrutinising every line of the terabytes of information that they make publicly available.
When the new rules to the Information Technology Act, 2000, were notified earlier this year, it became clear that some sort of clash was in the offing. These rules themselves were expansive, setting restrictions that, in most liberal democracies, have emerged from judicial examination or from legislative deliberation rather than executive fiat. Much concern centred on loose language in the provisions governing “intermediary” websites. That required websites to make sure that stringent user regulations were posted and visible, and to respond within 36 hours to demands to remove information. Google and Facebook have both released statements that they have followed the letter and spirit of the law; the government now wishes to go beyond it. Perhaps it should listen to its own minister of state for communications and IT, who informed the Lok Sabha last week that “the large number of users logging on the sites and millions of pages on such sites make it practically very difficult to keep a vigil on all contents posted/hosted on these sites.” In any case, pre-screening of content amounts to unacceptable censorship. At the same time, the internet is no different from any form of speech, subject to the same freedoms — and the same restrictions, when it comes to defamation, libel, or hate speech. The bottomline is simple: the government must enforce the laws on the statute books to the extent that it’s feasible to do so, but fairly and transparently, through a continual process of engagement. It must not overstep its authority. Nor should it try to intimidate companies into submitting to any extra-legal demands.