India blocked some 309 urls yesterday between Facebook, Twitter, blog posts and entire sites, the details of which are not known, but CIS-India who got a copy of the leaked list has put up an excellent post by Pranesh Prakash examining the information available.
In the meanwhile, Twitter is full of new born free speech activists with dire warnings about this being the thin end of the wedge and how if we don’t speak up now, we are forever doomed. Well, good morning. Those of us protesting violations of Internet Rights have known this for a while now. I actually find this to be the first vaguely valid use of censorship.
The violence and exodus following the Assam riots have been found to be fuelled to a significant extent by the misuse of social media to spread disinformation and paranoia. While defaulting to its usual dysfunctional choice of censorship isn’t going to be terribly effective, the government is well away from violating the right to free speech if this is a response to a National Emergency. Free Speech is not absolute. It cannot overrule laws of the land.
Many accounts on Twitter being blocked belonging to BJP supporters has given a good opportunity for the hundreds of BJP supporters *not* blocked to claim persecution. Many regular people and rights supporters are condemning the blocks. While there is nothing new about BJP discovering human rights when they can point out violations by the Congress or Pakistan (supporting Rinkle or Balochistan, outrage over Guwahati molestation, for example), if we look at this from a hoslistic view, the outrage seems premature.
Not must this political opportunism be legitimized as any kind of concern for rights. Of course, they still can protest, but to claim it in the name of the country’s rights rings hollow. When the Rinkle abduction happened, hardly anyone in India gave a damn. All of a sudden, BJP supporters found it and outraged over it for a while. No change happened, they fell quiet. That silence went into attacks on those condemning RSS/BJP lack of condemnation for moral policing after the Mangalore attacks. So much for women’s rights.
It we look at MP Rajeeve’s efforts to overturn the IT Rules, the motion failed to pass in the Parliament. For all the noise over corruption, the BJP categorically refused to pass a no-confidence motion against the government. The JPC fiasco is another thing. Urging citizens to do the right thing is clearly a circumstantial matter.
Now let us look at the kind of content coming on the internet from many of the banned accounts. I have seen tweets portraying the Assam massacre as a Muslim persecution of Hindus in the face of all attempts to explain that Muslims were actually the greater number among casualties. When the Mumbai riot happened, a photo with a Muslim religious flag was promoted as Muslims hoisting Pakistan flag in Mumbai. I myself debunked it several times giving differences between the flags. I saw others do it. Still others actually posted images of both flags to point out differences. It is impossible that they did not know this, since replies were addressed directly to them. STILL the rumor of Pakistani flag hoisted in Mumbai by Muslims was deliberately continued even by the same handles.
I have seen and taken objection to several tweets saying that they missed Nathuram Godse today or that Nathuram Godse was the real need of India. Who is Nathuram Godse? The guy who shot Gandhi dead. There are tweets that are extremely obscene about political figures. If we can investigate and prosecute online stalkers driving people to suicide with obscene harassment, I see no reason why these shouldn’t be taken action against. In my view these things come under communal incitement or incitement to harm specific people. This is not legal. This cannot come under free speech. Free Speech doesn’t overrule law and order in any interpretation of it. While I don’t know what content the accounts were targeted for, the chances of most of it being harmless free speech about the Assam Riots in my view are very low. While it is near impossible to ban content on the internet, I cannot hold the government wrong for trying. [Note: Firstpost has started filtering comments because of rampant abusive comments. This is not the government, but a site that thrives on comments.]
Disinformation flourishes to win sympathy. Parody accounts being blocked is one. But one of the oldest genuine parodies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh @DrYumYumSingh is working fine. Many other parody accounts are not touched.
That said there are several grey and black areas about this, which should be clarified in the interests of transparency. One is accounts of journalists being blocked. If those journalists were spreading disinformation about Assam Riots, then shouldn’t their reporting be under scrutiny? If it was a matter of promoting disinformation and helping it reach larger audiences/giving it credibility, then couldn’t this be clarified with them carefulness urged rather than blocks? It is very easy to mistake information at the speed of social media, but surely journalists have shown some competence at responsible speech to get the benifit of the doubt? One of the blocked journalists @ShivAroor isn’t even a handle to tweet much on any single subject and has a large diversity of often totally apolitical content. @aparanjpe is another example.
A big concern is the blocking of content that debunks the Assam riot disinformation. This counterproductive and clearly the result of low investigation of content. With this block, the blocks on journalists seem completely mistaken. There are several other problems listed in the CIS India post. The list of sites the government wants blocked seems haphazard, and it is unclear if all of them are harmful, or if they are the result of a careless search.
With it being so easy to bypass blocks, as well as the government credibility on censorship shot so thoroughly with their own actions, blocking is unlikely to achieve much given a few dedicated supporters to bring things to the attention of masses at large.
Also, while blocking specific content or blogs dedicated to harmful interests makes sense, blocking an interactive account is still a violation of free speech and completely useless once the situation has passed and the accounts are talking of something else.
The government reliance on censorship is dysfunctional and misplaced. In a country with high density of Television usage and relatively low use of social media, blocking internet content a month after the situation has passed is like bolting the barn door after the horse has escaped. Social media is what it is, and the next such crisis cannot be avoided by blocking a few accounts from this one alone.
The need of the hour is for the government to become interactive. To get those fat and lazy cyber security organizations to collect intel and provide it real time to ministers who can use all the media in one go to debunk concerning trends *before* they become problems. If there are rumors proliferating of massacres of Burma Muslims, they need to be investigated and debunked *before* a protest believes and uses that information to damage India. Where there is debunking already available, it needs to be leveraged and promoted. Where there is no debunking available, even a casual comment referring to the disinformation and asking people to stay cool while it is investigated can work miracles.
The answer doesn’t lie in silencing people, but speaking with leadership in a world where everyone has voice. Also silencing abusive profiles is not adequate, there needs to be investigation and prosecution, or they simply create a new one, before the previous outrage dies down. If mental harassment, online stalking is illegal, then don’t just hide it, trace a few profiles to real people and prosecute them in courts of law where they also have lawyers and what is the law can be upheld on the matter.
That said, it is important for the government to still have the right to block problem content and for protests to not paralyze government decisions when taken for the right reasons – the blocks are new and will likely be refined to include/exclude or be more effective. This is the right of the government. If it doesn’t work or is not reversed when things quieten, and no explanations are provided, then it makes sense to protest for specific profiles you believe in. Better still those profiles should approach courts of law and demand compensation for defamation if wrongfully or politically blocked. Wanting a blanket reversal for what is a security measure is immature.