Delhi stumbles in social media universe
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - Internet users were in uproar across India after Information
Technology Minister Kapil Sibal ordered Google and other social media networks
to screen "objectionable" content. "Tell the Congress [party] that trying to
squash freedom is like squeezing water in a fist," advised a Twitter user on
The "squeezed water" splashed back badly on Sibal and his Congress party, as
has in China, Pakistan, South Korea and in other countries where governments
are trying to impose themselves on the Republic of the Internet.
"Dear Sibal, We're not China," admonished venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy on
Twitter. "Their leaders can muzzle the net and stay in power. You'll see you
Sorabh Pant tweeted some raging satire on #Kipal Sibal on
December 7: "I love Sonia Gandhi [Congress party leader]. She is awesome. She
is God. And never wrong about anything, ever. (This msg is approved by Kapil
Sibal's cyber cell.) "
Operation Sibal to control/monitor/censor/regulate/screen online content and
communication, was as clumsy and high-handed as earlier controversies such as
the Indian government demanding access to BlackBerry communication on
This time the big brother act appeared, as the New York Times revealed on
December 5, due to "offensive" content on Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party
president and chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh, as well as other online content deemed blasphemous.
It seems any genuine concerns that 63-year old Harvard Law School graduate
Sibal may have held were swept away by an arrogant handling of the issue. No
politely suggesting an agenda, offline or online, saying, "I see this as a
problem. If so, is there a way out?"
Instead, he summoned the Indian chiefs of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and
Facebook, ignored their assurances that mechanisms were already in place to
filter out illegal content and objected to their justified stance to only obey
court orders over disagreement of content's legality. He threatened to pass new
regulations to monitor social media. The new controls were supposedly to suit
India than the United States, home to the world's biggest social media
Google has insisted it complies with local laws. In the India section of the
latest Google Transparency Report , Google has said it has complied fully or
partially with 51% of requests made from the Indian central and state
governments, law enforcement agencies, courts and Internet users to remove
content deemed illegal.
"In addition, we received a request from a local law enforcement agency to
remove 236 communities and profiles from Orkut [Google's social networking
website] that were critical of a local politician," the Google report said. "We
did not comply with this request, since the content did not violate our
Community Standards or local law."
"Sibal wanted some software to automatically pre-censor content before being
published. It doesn't exist, and it's not possible." said Vijay Mukhi, a
Mumbai-based information technology expert and an Internet pioneer in India.
"The episode only showed how little politicians understand technology."
Mukhi, who introduced many young journalists to Internet use in the early
1990s, may be doing a national service in organizing workshops for politicians
on how to befriend social media, instead of trying to block it. "Pre-censorship
is impossible given the volume of data, and post-censorship may only aggravate
the problem," said Mukhi. "For instance, an 'offending' tweet is deleted but
Asia Times Online has already carried an article about it. So should all
articles on the 'offensive' content also be removed from the Internet?"
Sibal and his ministry seemed to have forgotten that the strong-minded choose
to neither take offense nor give it, including to online content. Instead, he
harvested a public relations disaster for him and his government already
"suffering poverty of popularity".
A spectrum of indignant citizenry ensured that by December 7 the Sibal
controversy was leading Twitter trending in India. Veteran journalist Tavleen
Singh expressed her disgust: "Listened carefully to Kapil Sibal's reasons for
trying to censor the Internet and found them unconvincing and shameful."
"Internet is the only truly democratic medium free of vested interests, media
owners and paid-off journos. Can see why Kapil Sibal wants to gag it," offered
Varun Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi's nephew and a parliamentarian from the opposition
Bharatiya Janata Party.
Other young Indian leaders like Jammu and Kashmir's 41-year old chief minister
Omar Abdullah guardedly shared Sibal's concerns on poisonous social media
content. But the controversy only exposed how even Supreme Court lawyers turned
cabinet ministers like Sibal have not grasped the spirit of the Internet and
the logistics of 21st-century mass media.
Unless Sibal has found a master plan to solve global unemployment? Social media
networks would need to hire millions of supervisors to screen the billions of
individual messages and content being posted online daily.
If the Information Technology Ministry wants this inspection job, it may have
to recruit Superman, Mandrake the Magician and Harry Potter. Google lists over
one trillion individual web pages, India alone has over 100 million Internet
users, and this is only the third-largest after China and the US. Facebook says
it has over 800 million users worldwide in 70 languages, with over 50% of them
logging on daily, and uploading 250 million photographs every day.
Twitter, with an estimated 300 million users worldwide, generated 6,049 tweets per
second on October 6, the day after Apple co-founder Steve Jobs passed
away. Traffic lights are needed in online highways too, but governments,
including that in the world's largest democracy, seem to be lagging in
appreciating that regulation in social is media largely involves
self-regulation - by the individual user.
"You are what you Tweet!" declares the Twitter official policy statement
disclaiming any central responsibility for content. You are also what you
search and share online. If Sibal and his minions looked for garbage generated
by unhealthy minds, they found it.
As Internet users know, major online entities have screening mechanisms up
front. Google offers options of "no filtering", "moderate" and "strict" for
searches to avoid adult content, and offers click buttons to report "offensive"
The San Francisco-based Twitter employs an international "User Safety" team in
various countries, "for identifying, investigating, and resolving trust and
safety, abuse, and harassment issues reported by our users". But Twitter has
also carefully clarified: "All Content, whether publicly posted or privately
transmitted, is the sole responsibility of the person who originated such
That individual responsibility is the breath of life for social media networks,
and for life itself, is a reality authoritarian governments seem unable to
digest. Twitter and social media platforms are not the publishers who can be
sued for obscenity or libel, or summoned for scolding by officious politicians.
They are merely manufacturers of paper or the blackboard for the individual to
use. The control-freak tribe is yet to figure out that the wall cannot be
blamed for the graffiti.
Instead of attempting the impossible: filtering the growing oceans of
information, Sibal and his political class would benefit from a more practical
alternative - being careful about one's own words and actions. Self-censorship
on Internet, as in life, pays better dividends, and may have spared
#IdiotKapilSibal being top of Twitter trending in India this week.
1. Google Transparency
Report, India, January-June 2011.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)