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On The Offensive

What you may not know, and should, about how you have lost the right to offend.

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Roll over Gutenburg, we are living in the times of the Zuckerburg press. Thanks to the democratic worId that is the Internet, anybody and everybody can today have their say on the worldwide web. You can rant and rave all you want on blogs, twitter, facebook, google, you name it. The internet has virtually allowed every individual to transform himself into a media channel.

While we always had our right to freedom of expression, a platform and an audience to share our opinions or thoughts with was conspicuous by its absence. Enter the Internet.

This wonder technology ensured that suddenly civilians, politicians, conglomerates, activists, consumers from all over the world were all on the same page (usually a Facebook page). It also made sure that if you wanted to dissent against something, your voice would be heard today. Heard by the very people you wanted to reach out to. And you didn’t need to ask permission or be afraid of being silenced. Not anymore.

What many people aren’t aware of (or may not have realized the implications of) is that since April 11, 2011, the internet scenario of the country has changed drastically, and depending on how you view your freedom of speech on the internet, there is cause for alarm. This was the day when something called the Intermediary Guidelines came into the picture.

Who or what exactly is an intermediary? Advocate Apar Gupta explains:

 

 

And what exactly are the problems with these so-called ‘Guidelines’?

 

 

Put simply, if what I have written in my blog is inconvenient to Mr. X, then he can make a generic complaint, which doesn’t have to substantiate why he is disturbed by my blog and its contents. His complaint can simply state that it hurts his sentiments or sensibilities, and this would result in my blog being removed within 36 hours by the company which hosts my blog without giving me any prior notice. The offended Mr. X doesn’t even have to be the person who has been hurt or defamed! For example, if my blog criticizes Mukesh Ambani or Kapil Sibal, the intermediaries will act on complaints from anyone, even if they do not have any tenuous connection to Ambani or Sibal.

The Google Transparency Report says that between January 2011-June 2011, 358 requests were made by the government to Google for blogs to be removed, and 255 of these requests were categorised under ‘Government Criticism’. We might as well bid adieu to any concept of freedom of speech. Especially if it’s directed towards the government.

This latent ‘right to offend’ on the internet was the subject of a discussion organized by the Foundation of Media Professionals. Moderated by journalist, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta the panel included Lawrence Liang – an expert on software, culture and law, Kartika – publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Harper Collins, Apar Gupta – an advocate and blogger of Indian Law and Technology Blog, Shuddhabrata Sengupta – artist, writer and co-founder of RAQS media collective and sarai, and R. Jagannathan, Editor-in-Chief of Firstpost.

R. Jagannathan, a journalist with 35 years of experience in print, is now a hardcore internet fan. He feels that the internet is all about the liberation of media from the monopoly of media houses. He doesn’t like anybody who doesn’t like the internet (read Kapil Sibal), and feels that in the garb of tackling offensive content, a muzzle is being put on free expression. Catch him in full form in the video below.

 

 

But everything isn’t so rosy in the online media space either. If you ask him about whether the internet will allow dissent against establishment, he does concede that even the internet has a tendency to breed monopolies.

 

 

So is Kapil Sibal’s brainwave of pre-censorship a real danger to internet freedom? Mr. Jagannathan answers –

 

 

What is the true test of a democratic government is how it treats (or mistreats) those citizens who dissent. This is what happened to Shuddhabrata Sengupta after he was sent a notice by Google for circulating ‘obscene’ material:

 


So the question is, can we protect our freedom of expression from these lopsided guidelines? And is anyone going to do anything about it??

Rajya Sabha member, P. Rajeev, when approached by people regarding this issue, put up a Statutory Motion before the Upper House asking for the withdrawal of the Guidelines. The Statutory Motion reads –

“That this House resolves that the Information Technology (Intermediaries

Guidelines) Rules, 2011 issued under clause (zg) of sub-section (2) of Section

87 read with sub-section (2) of Section 79 of the Information Technology Act,

2000 published in the Gazette of India dated the 13th April, 2011 vide Notification

No. G.S.R 314(E) and laid on the Table of the House on the 12th August, 2011,

be annuled; and that this House recommends to Lok Sabha that Lok Sabha do

concur on this Motion.”

Will this annulment happen? If it doesn’t, there will be no respite from these Guidelines for us to challenge them in the courts. At the moment this is what you can do: The Software Freedom Law Center is circulating an online petition  which can be sent to MPs at the click of your mouse.

This refusal to be monitored and censored on the internet is not just unique to India. Netizens across the world have been battling censorship attempts. Wikipedia went on strike against SOPA and PIPA bills in US Senate.

So what will happen to Internet freedom in India? Well, it’s a skewed picture. If the annulment which is supposed to come up in the post-budget session doesn’t happen, these Guidelines will be a Damocles sword hanging over our heads. And every time you sit on your keyboard to update your status, offer your opinion, write a blog, or even comment on anything, you’ll be pressing each key tentatively, hoping you haven’t offended anyone. Because in the current scenario, you have no right to.

 

Image Source [http://www.flickr.com/photos/desiitaly/2250945248/sizes/o/in/photostream/]

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