Can The Indian Government Censor Social Media?

An article discussing whether the Indian Government can censor Social Media with input from experts in the field.

Content Censorship

Social Media in India has seen too many colors within the first month of 2012. The effects of the India Against Corruption, which majorly grew on social media not only shook the government’s sleeping technology cell but also drove it crazy enough to make some drastic announcements leading to a face palm situation. As they say any kind of publicity is good, one man got the maximum publicity during this time and it was none other than our own Kapil Sibal.

During this time the Government tried each and every method of stopping and controlling social media and to an extent it was possible. Twitter recently announced that it will follow the regulations and if content was not accepted in a country then it will remove it. Google and Facebook also joined the party and the latest was RIM bowing down to pressure and setting up servers in India. So it raises two questions primarily:

1. Can the Indian Government regulate content on social media?

2. Should Internet and Social giants abide by the rule of the land?

Google censored
Image Courtesy: WebSight Design Inc.

Is it Possible?

Venkky Preetham thinks that first of all the argument is wrong. People in the government have a misconception that content on social media should be regulated because of its viral nature or that content on Facebook makes it viral.

He adds that: “We all remember 5-6 yrs ago, there was a stream of porn videos that were launched in an age where we had no social networks. Everyone watched it and it was carried in all mediums. What did the government do about it? Nothing!

So to what level are you going to censor?  The bottom line is information is free and you can do nothing about it.”

Indeed Preetham, today content still flows secretly via personal mails and I don’t think that the government would dream of filtering personal emails. Otherwise it will bring back the ruckus that was caused when telephone lines of ministers were tapped.

Along with the argument, doing so is also an uphill task. Mukund Mohan feels that too: “Not sure if government can either a) protect its citizens from offensive content or b) effectively regulate and remove offensive content. This will remain one of the cases where they will try to regulate and hopelessly fail because of the size of the task at hand.”

Not an easy task and obviously it won’t work if it is going to implement for all rather than on specific issues as highlighted by Arun Prabhudesai“Whatever the Government of India enforces, the content censorship can be done only on case to case basis. It cannot have a blanket algorithm that will blacklist the content – Also, Govt. cannot enforce a blanket ban on either Facebook or Google, or for that matter any other platform.“

Besides this the government is also confused in understanding the functionality of these sites. Sanjay Sahay highlights this very well: “The government is taking Google and Facebook as destination websites. Applying the same yardstick of control and accountability for a destination site to a platform is not correct. A destination site can manage its editorial/content, but it is simply impossible for a platform to do the same. A platform can have the terms of use accepted by a user/participant and enforce compliance if there is a complaint.”

It really seems that the government is clueless and does suffer from a lack of understanding when it comes to social networks.

Should Google and Facebook obey Indian Laws?

With content being regulated, one more issue that caught fire was the initial disagreement of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc abiding to the laws of the land.

Suparna Singh thinks that the laws of the land are strong enough and she adds that: “An attempt at censorship will have a huge backlash- this is a country filled with young netizens.  The cartoons and morphed photos cited in the recent cases are certainly objectionable.  What’s worrying are reports that the government has objected more to posts that are critical of politicians, than about child porn, for example”.

Saying that she also expresses that : “Equally, I don’t think it bodes well for companies like Facebook if they claim they cannot be held accountable for content because their servers are located in the US.  They benefit financially in India, they have to be accountable to existing Indian laws.”

Suparna does make a strong point as we know India ranks second on Facebook after US and Google does make a great chunk of money from India so they should be accountable to existing Indian laws.  Sanjay Sahay also echoes the same thoughts: “All companies have to operate within the framework of law of the land. From that perspective, Google and Facebook, or for that matter, any other company has to comply.”

I think the recent announcements by the Internet and Social giants that they are going to abide by laws directed by the court should bring some smiling faces in the government. It is an important decision to happen as it will help curb riots like London witnessed last year.

But then who decides what is bad content?

Arun thinks that the Government has every right to protest against obscene and bad content from social media sites and even Preetham agrees to it. Preetham added that the guy who registered case against the 21 Internet companies was right in doing so but then how much is it effective is a question that he leaves for us to ponder upon.

Content censorship
Image Courtesy: GlobalVoicesOnline.org

And Is India going to be the next China?

Preetham thinks that this is an absurd thought. He further adds that China has its own personal networks and they don’t have pre-screening of content.  Even Sanjay expressed the same worry saying that if the government wants to go the China way, then we have to be prepared for loss of access to good sites/content. This is what happened with Google in China (see here).

Final Thoughts

I am sure that we won’t clone China atleast in this aspect and as Preetham says – the Internet is viral and not Facebook. He also adds that social media is a good listening tool but the government hasn’t learnt the same.

Content regulation on social media is an impossible task especially in a country which is the world’s biggest democracy. Saying that I am also aware that content that hurts sentiments should be removed and apt laws need to be created. However it will be interesting to see how the vested interests play a role and even though the Government has declared that they are not planning to regulate content on social media but I am sure one would witness some incidents which we might be not aware of. We all know that we are only aware of things that are reported or shown to us, rest is hidden.

To know about an incident, information has to flow. How much this flow is going to be choked is a question to which we have no easy answers now. 2012 has already turned into an interesting year and I am sure we are going to see more fireworks on this topic in India as well as globally.

Slider Image Courtesy: Techspot