By a strange coincidence freedom of expression appears under serious threat in the two leading democracies in the world. Indian Government has given sanction to prosecute 21 internet companies, including Google and Facebook, for carrying material that could “instigate public enmity and even endanger India’s unity”. In the US, debate rages over the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA), which would impede free flow of information on the internet by placing massive restrictions on user-generated content like posts to forums, video uploads, podcasts or images, if passed.
In India, the move comes close in the heels of the hugely popular anti-corruption movement by Anna Hazare, which owed a large part of its success to social networking media. The government, under severe criticism from all quarters for big ticket corruption cases, its mishandling of the Jan Lokpal Bill and various other major and minor transgressions, also finds itself on the receiving end of jibes on different online forums and blogs. Facebook groups and pages severely criticizing leading politicians – at times to the extent of being downright insulting – come up regularly and are circulated by users.
The US government was recently hit by the revelation of its diplomatic cables on Wikileaks – something that was “embarrassing but not damaging” as per the government itself. A stronger propulsive force behind the legislation is apparently the clique of companies and unions in cable, movie and music industries. Entities of the brick and mortar era, facing stiff challenge in today’s age of user generated content and peer to peer sharing.
It is nobody’s case that slandering others, writing communally inciting material, or infringing the intellectual property rights of another, are acceptable practices. Considering the difficulty in imposing such measures at the level of the actual perpetrators, the measures aim at shooting the messenger. They target the service providers. The concern of proponents of free speech over internet is that such restrictive and repressive measures would impact the ‘white’ users of the internet as much, if not more, than the ‘black’ users who are the perpetrators sought to be reined in. These defaulters, who in any case represent a minority on the fringe, would be able to find workarounds to hide their identity, overcome barriers and continue with impunity. With the pace of evolution of technology, and the fact that the perpetrators of wrong tend to be more techno-savvy than the doddering law enforcement agencies, the former will always remain elusively ahead of the latter. They will continue to slander, pirate, share and whatever else they are doing now.
But in the bargain, such legislative and regulatory measures will severely impact the open environment of cyberspace. Imposing caution on the service providers will restrict the free flow of creativity of the users and simultaneously constrain the free entrepreneurial spirit of the internet companies.
Measures by China to regulate the free flow of thought on internet some time back did not raise too many eyebrows – but similar moves by two open democracies, votaries of freedom of thought and speech – cannot be construed as acceptable behavior. Let’s hope better sense prevails amongst the decision makers in both.