In recent years, the internet has become increasingly accessible to people all over the world, not only on computers but also through telephones, tablets and other gadgets that allow instant, on-the-go access. As a result, we take for granted the vastness of knowledge available at our fingertips. Almost everything can be learned through Google and Wikipedia. We can network and communicate with friends and others through Facebook, Orkut and a multitude of social and professional networking sites.
However, there is an ongoing global debate regarding censorship of the internet and the removal or blocking of objectionable content, remarks or opinions. While it is easy to dismiss extremist views, there are also valid concerns about the availability of certain content, the accessibility of dangerous or illegal substances, and the internet’s impact on society at large.
We recently experienced an unprecedented information blackout when Wikipedia and several other website providers shut down or blacked out their content in protest against proposed US legislation to protect intellectual property (IP) online and block foreign websites from appearing in US. Despite the laudable intention to protect IP rights, such legislation could result in the blocking of legitimate content and infringement of free speech the world over.
Similarly, the Indian government recently asked network service providers to monitor and remove all offensive, objectionable and obscene material from their websites, after rules on liabilities of internet service providers and intermediaries were introduced last year. After some resistance, websites such as Google and Facebook have removed such content.
However, it is anybody’s guess as to what standard is used to determine whether content is obscene or objectionable. It is often also alleged that “flagging” of objectionable content and requests for removal of content are political tools to block legitimate criticism of the government and its policies, and an attack on citizens’ rights to free speech and thought.
Private legal action
Around the same time as the government’s request, a Delhi-based journalist filed a criminal complaint before a local court against Google, Facebook and several others for hosting sensitive, objectionable and inflammatory content on their websites. The case, in Delhi High Court, has attracted media attention and debate among people of all walks of life. An educator has filed an application to be made part of the proceedings on the basis that any restraint on the internet is an attack every citizen who uses it.
Similarly, a petition has been filed against providers of search engines, in particular, alleging that they host illegal content such as that related to child abuse and pornography, and promote illegal drug use and services such as prenatal sex determination, which is illegal in India.
Free speech or abuse
All of this raises the question of how much internet content is protected as free speech, how much is an abuse of the internet’s resources, and whether it is desirable or indeed possible to control such abuse. While one would be hard-pressed to find anyone arguing in support of the right to promote child abuse, illegal drug use or prenatal sex determination, it is a different matter when one finds content objectionable on the ground that it is obscene, inflammatory, defamatory and the like.
Google said it was asked to remove content on the grounds of national security, or because it was defamatory, religious criticism or even political criticism! It would indeed be a step backwards for India when the government decides what content is suitable for adults in the country and what cannot be expressed because of the whole country’s religious, political and personal sentiments. Such matters should be beyond the purview of government control and in the hands of private citizens.
Most internet service providers and websites, either voluntarily or on request, review their content and remove anything that violates their internal policies. Most governments’ attempts to curb internet freedom exclude personal, religious and political comments and focus on content that is likely to incite religious disharmony, endanger national security or is contrary to local laws, including those pertaining to intellectual property.
This may be the only workable solution to maintain the democratic and free nature of the internet. Any further control might lead to a situation where the country would be tempted to have more and more controls and degenerate into the situation that presently prevails in those countries where everything is monitored and political and religious persecution are rampant.
Tolerance and free speech are the pillars of Indian democracy and it is necessary that the government and courts keep this in mind when imposing any restrictions on the use of the internet.
Apoorva Trivedi is an associate at Lall Lahiri & Salhotra, which is an IP boutique based in Gurgaon.
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