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BW Businessworld

Free Speech In Shackles

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Normally, it gets my goat when a newsperson ends a controversial report with: Clearly, there are many questions — but no easy answers. But when it comes to freedom of speech and the Internet, I have to agree.

The right to free speech, both offline and online, has been mired in a tangle of issues for the past few weeks. No one needs reminding of the numerous instances they have focussed on — from the political to the religious to the nonsensical. But the question of the licence to say and do what you like online saw a recent resurfacing when Mr. Sibal raked it up, calling for some kind of regulation of content by the social networks because there was obnoxious and offensive material being churned out. And the latest in the saga of speech is Twitter's new tweet censoring policy, which has outraged many.

There are obviously many positions on whether the social web should mean free speech. At one end of the spectrum are users who believe that the Internet is synonymous with free expression. But take pause for a bit and see if you think hardened criminals from within a prison taunting their victims on Facebook is acceptable. Consider whether you think pro-Nazi posts on the social networks (still found without much effort searching) should remain. And there's worse, of course, but many netizens' belief that the Internet will cleanse itself and automatically ignore or weed out the rot, may not be founded in practicality.

At the other end of the spectrum of free speech are those people who will react at the slightest imagined provocation. Just go up on the terrace and try shouting ‘I love Bombay' a few times. Because the agenda is control. The already complex problem of what our rights should be on the Internet are further muddled by the different motives coming into the fray. Those who have a vested interest in gaining or retaining power are obviously uncomfortable with opinion becoming rampant online without their blessing. They would far prefer to manipulate it, not hesitating to use the same medium and social networks to push their own opinion.

 But there are some things that the power mongers should realise. Online, they're dealing with a more aware audience. People who have access to different ideas and influences, people who have really made the Internet what it is, and most importantly, people who have found their voice. Barging in to silence them will only mean they will find another way. Discontent may be expressed on the Internet; it isn't born because of it. Trace it back deep enough and it comes from what is happening in everyday lives. Trample on people hard and long enough, and no Twitter censorship of tweets will prevent the repercussions; but only delay them.

As far as Twitter goes, in agreeing to hide tweets in countries where a request is made to do so, is only safeguarding and furthering its commercial interests.

That brings us to the other set of powers — the "sovereigns of the Internet", as they're sometimes called; the big companies that also want to control everything. The tussle, here too, is that companies often act without the buy-in of their users — users without whom they are nothing. It's not unthinkable that there should be repercussions there too. How Twitter's selective untweets will work, is not yet clear, but of course, workarounds are already being posted online.

On top of all this, we have allowed ourselves to live in an age of fear, where t turns out our speech is not half as free as we thought it was. This is because the threat of violence can always hold it to ransom. This is by no means a byproduct of the Internet, but a reality on the ground. Neither authorities nor netizens nor citizens have managed to do anything about this. And so, "hurt sentiments" can be called up any time to curtail freedom of expression. Your art is not my art. Your religion is not my religion. Your temple is not where I would go. New agendas, new misconceptions, new time-wasting reactions make a messy scenario worse. The world is not of one mind and no one agrees on what is right and what is wrong. How do we expect to decide it for the Internet? And the ever-present question: who is to decide it? But decide it we must, because just as we need some regulations to get along n society, we need some agreement on what goes on the internet.

Not the laws and rules rotting in government archives, but rules made by stakeholders who want to shape the Internet to be a shade better than ‘real life' sometimes is. What those rules will be, I can't say. As they say on Facebook, "It's Complicated."
[email protected], @malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 13-02-2012)