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India: Is Online Censorship Always a Violation of Free Speech?

The Indian government's move to block bulk SMS, MMS, webpages and specific social media urls to contain rumors from spreading in the wake of ethnic clashes in the Indian state Assam has set off an anti-censorship firestorm in the Indian blogosphere (see Global Voices report). In July 2012, an initial absence of mainstream media coverage in Assam spurred citizens to report on the violence and share emergency information themselves. But mischief-makers also took advantage of social media to spread malicious rumors, which led to broad charges by the government that social media helped fuel the unrest.

Netizens have continued to discuss both the merits and failures of the government's actions and citizen perceptions.

Samrat at News Laundry discusses the complexity of the issue and how to tackle the problem:

The difficulty is not in deciding what is right. It is in doing it, because our administration and justice systems are weak, inefficient and often corrupt. The solution lies in fixing them. That is long, hard and boring work so no one talks about it. Everyone just wants to go and outrage on Twitter and TV channels and be done with it.

Police detained around 150 CPI(M) activists in Nagaon who protested against ethnic clashes in Assam. Image by Diganta Talukdar. Copyright Demotix (31/08/2012)

The Home Minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, said that the “motivated” online rumours were evidence of terrorists misusing cyberspace. Atanu Dey says its an excuse to repress people:

The UPA government of India wants to dictate once more what people should know and what information is OK for people to handle. It routinely blocks websites, prohibits or limits the use of mobile text messages, and is now threatening to block twitter altogether. The government’s repression of the people is an old habit and it should not evoke any surprise or comment. Yet the fight for freedom of speech and expression is too important to life and liberty that one should not give up merely because one has been on a losing streak for centuries. We, the people, have to win that battle if we have to win the war for freedom.

The blogger adds:

If in a democracy the government makes the claim that information should be carefully controlled, curated and censored for public consumption, it leads to an inconsistency. It means that the people are incompetent and incapable of handling information but yet somehow, even though not fully informed, are able to decide and choose who is to be entrusted with the important task of making public policy. Without the people having the freedom of speech and expression, without the freedom to be exposed to the widest range of ideas and opinions, democracy is a meaningless word parroted by ignorant demagogues for purely self-serving ends.

AmreekanDesi reacts with sarcasm:

I feel proud of the way in which you, our government, dealt with the situation. Bulk SMSes blocked. Youtube videos blocked. Twitter parody accounts blocked. Facebook pages blocked. Well done, you guys. [..]

We are stupid, and cannot recognise good intentions when someone tries to do something. Any child would be able to see how a parody account of our good prime minister could spread all sorts of misinformation that leads to thousands of people overnight packing up their bags and heading to their villages. Completely plausible.

I promise that despite my depressed state, i never worried about the fact that potentially our freedom of speech is being curtailed. Tough times call for drastic measures after all. Look at China. They are doing so well. I think they got about 2 trillion gold medals in the latest Olympics.

Freedom of speech is totally overrated.

Vidyut at AamJanata says that absolute free speech is a myth:

Free speech is about your opinions. Your right to say what you want. However, freedom of information is an important part of free speech. Spreading disinformation is anti-freespeech, because disinformation influences free speech for an agenda. [..]

How easy it is to claim freedom of speech for purposes of communal incitement, something which is explicitly illegal in India. How easy it is to play the victim and overturn feeble attempts at enforcing order. How easy it is to fool citizens who have deliberately been kept in the dark on any dialogue on free speech, that any censorship is a violation of free speech.

There is *always* a line. A line that is drawn with a view to freedoms and tweaked in cases of emergency however needed. When you have people from the northeast from half a dozen cities fleeing, effective or not, the government has the right to take measures it thinks are appropriate – though admittedly the government is not very bright with this. To condemn the censorship as an attack of Freedom of Speech is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Free Speech is.

Silence before the storm considers the Internet to be a ‘self conditioned’ environment: “that is the arbitration mechanism needn’t be external to the system that Internet provides, but internal contradictions will nullify each other.”

The Delhi High Court yesterday refused to entertain a Public Interest Litigation filed by a group of law students to annul the Indian Government’s notifications of blocking web pages (including pages of Facebook, Google and Twitter) for hosting inflammatory content and triggering panic. Apurva Chaudhary writes:

The plea stated that the notifications (under the Information and Technology Act and its rules) were patently unconstitutional and violated the fundamental rights of the freedom of speech and expression by blocking access to the websites without giving a hearing to the content owners and other affected people.

However, the judges on the bench said that they could not treat the plea as a public interest litigation and that the affected parties should approach the court.

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