Why is the Indian government afraid of the Internet?

There was a time when businesses hated social media. They thought it was a waste of effort, a resource drain, and lacked accountability and upside. While, many businesses are still late to the party and others are just plan using them incorrectly, several brands/companies have leveraged social media to be a useful tool to generate brand awareness, leads and most importantly activating brand enthusiasts.

So the recent spate of governments, particularly democratic governments, wanting to curb the power of the Internet has perturbed me. Why are democracies infringing upon its citizens free speech? Particularly allowing them to make their own decisions.

Most recently one of the world’s largest democracies, India, has begun asking websites to screen content and even take down content that it deems inappropriate. Indian Telecommunications Minister, Kapil Sibal, meet with Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in a bid to get them to see how some of the content on their sites – social networks and otherwise – was harming the delicate sensibilities of the Indian people. Government officials were particularly upset about Web pages that are insulting to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and major religious figures. Mr Sibal over the past three months has asked these firms to come up with a voluntary framework to keep offensive material off the Internet.

“This is a matter of great concern to us. We have to take care of the sensibility of our people,” he said.

Now thankfully the Internet companies told him there was nothing they could do. Google, Facebook and the others have mandates in place and removes content that disregards their standards.

So several hashtags and jokes later, several Indian thought that the Social Networking Information Act (or the acronym SONIA – Sonia Gandhi must have had a shock) would never see the light of day. That was until three of the world’s largest Internet companies – Google, Facebook, Yahoo – and 18 other companies have been summoned to face trial in January by the Patiala court for “willfully promoting and publicising offensive material for commercial gains”. With the governments plan to censor the Internet and decide what gets to stay online and what does not.

According to ET, “Indian rules require websites to remove offensive content from their sites within 36 hours of receiving a takedown notice. Failure to do so may lead to court proceedings. Experts say Indian law is asking companies to take down offensive content without applying their  terms and conditions they operate under when they receive a take down notice.” If the content creator can prove that it is not offensive, it can be put back up on.

Now I am not making a case for material that could religiously or culturally offensive to not be dealt with.  But what is disturbing is to see governments stepping in and taking a call for over a billion people. Last time I checked we had the right to watch, see, read, write and disregard anything we wanted to. Plus there is a neat little feature, its called switching the page, reporting it offensive or hey just don’t read it.

I would like to point out that while India generally has unrestricted access to the Internet, of its 1.2 billion people – who can afford it and are on the electrical and telephone grids – Internet penetration rate is at 8%. Moreover, social networking penetration is a meager 3%. So lets first get a larger proportion of our population educated, on the Internet, provide them access to electricity and then worry about their being offended.

There is more to this than meets the eye. Governments, including India, are in panic mode over the role and influence of the Internet, particularly social media and its ability to educate and even ignite movements. Look at Occupy Wall Street, movement in Egypt and even Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption (for more on this please see an earlier post – Social Media and India). In each of these movements, it was people’s ability to access instant information, corroborate facts  from multiple sources, made each effort stronger and sustained. We are moving towards the dawn of an empowered Indian citizen – one who is aware of his/her rights, not afraid to shout out their concerns, ask questions and hold those in charge accountable. That is the crux of the matter and if we truly are a democracy, we need to let the people make the decisions.

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