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Anti-Social Media

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It is easy to laugh off communications minister Kapil Sibal's statement about muzzling social media networks as something said in a moment of pique. Most think it's impossible to do anyway. But there are a couple of reasons to consider why he said it, and whether he can actually do it. Sibal's statements are being attributed to politics: that it was a reaction to the Anna Hazare-led rallies in Delhi, which went viral on social media networks. But more importantly, many young people from smaller towns and cities discovered Twitter and Facebook and how to use them on their very smart mobile phones. As a mobilisation (pardon the pun) device, it scares politicians.

It is mass media without the intermediating editorial discretion; in the government's view, mass media is bound by certain rules that bloggers, tweeters and people on Facebook are not subject to. In the name of free speech, you could say anything, true or false, and reach millions of people. Since they cannot regulate you, they go after commercial enterprises like Facebook that make communications possible.

Sibal's not the first minister to try and ‘control' electronic media. In 2000, Sushma Swaraj attempted to stop phone sex services and control fashion channels. Both failed. The attempt to curb Fashion TV was pre-empted by promises of self-regulation from cable networks.

More recently, there were attempts to check bulk SMSes, which is a widely used tool for many businesses. People switched to using global servers that are beyond government jurisdiction. As Sibal admitted then, "I have no solutions yet."

But he has the means. The Information Technology Act has some draconian clauses — Sections 69, 69a, and 69b can be used to regulate Twitter and Facebook. Sibal suggested the direction of the government's thinking: invoking clauses for defamation under the IT Act and the IT Rules 2011, if "people's sensibilities are hurt".  "It's not desirable, but is possible," says Pawan Duggal an expert on cyber law.

The 25 million plus Indian users of Facebook and Twitter, more than 100 million users of Google have already reacted — by posting their outrage online.

Politically, this could be a minefield for the government. The lack of progress on reform measures and the failure to manage the impact of the economic slowdown have annoyed a constituency that is usually on their side: the business and corporate world. They can vote with their wallets to influence political change.

Nothing that Sibal can do will take the spotlight away from the 2G corruption scandal; if anything, it will make it worse. That said, Sibal has a point about accountability in the use of technology. As Microsoft researcher and Harvard fellow Danah Boyd points out, "Neither privacy nor publicity is dead, but technology will continue to make a mess of both."

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-12-2011)