Internet censorship boomerangs
Mar 12 2013
In the past, unpalatable printed content was proscribed, printing presses were plundered and sealed, and writers were physically attacked. In the age of internet, the writer may be publishing away from the long arms of his potential attackers. He may be masking his identity not merely by using a nom de guerre, but also using an IP address that is difficult to trace to the owner. The thought police in modern times may be a government agency which wants to practice censorship by asking search engine operators like Google or Bing to shut off websites or social networking sites like Facebook by taking down content.
Recently, we witnessed a strange case of a private education outfit’s franchise, approaching a district court in Gwalior and obtaining a court order that directed the department of telecommunications to block web pages .The plaintiff’s argument was quite interesting: “Numerous parents of students who have joined IIPM on the recommendation of the plaintiff have read the defamatory content on the websites and have been calling up and shouting on (sic) the plaintiff and his family members. He is facing hostility from society, friends, relatives due to patently false and defamatory material,” read the petition.
Pursuant to an ex-parte court order, the department of telecommunications (DoT) on February 14 issued instructions to internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to 78 URLs (uniform source locators, or web addresses). These web pages included the The Wall Street Journal, The Economic Times, The Indian Express, Outlook, Caravan and the University Grants Commission (UGC).
The blocking of 78 URLs naturally caused public outrage among those who had absolutely no interest in what this specific institute was doing suddenly began reading and commenting on the articles about IIPM. The court action created an Indian version of what is known in the west as the Streisand effect.
The Streisand Effect can be described thus: If you try to hide or delete a piece of information, it goes viral on the net. The unintended consequence of the attempted censorship is that it is disseminated more widely often by harnessing the power of the internet.
The effect derives its name from the American vocal musician Barbra Streisand, whose attempt in 2003 to conceal photographs of her residence inadvertently generated immense unintended publicity.
By blocking web pages pertaining to IIPM, the curiosity of the general public was piqued. The attempt to gag criticism boomeranged big time. Students, parents and employers were now seeking answers to questions like what is the institute’s placement record, where have the students been placed and at what salaries? Clearly, these questions are relevant because the students and their parents are voting with their wallets and customers have a right to information. As a result of this sordid saga, the role of the regulators have also come into sharp focus. In general, the mushrooming of institutions of higher education sans any rating mechanism has become a subject of intense debate and discussion.
The attempt to ban Kamal Haasan’s movie Vishwaroopam has backfired as well. Not only is it a grand success at the box office, a sequel is believed to be in the making. Recently, a Bengali movie Kangal Malsat (War Cry of the Proletarians) was refused a certificate by the Kolkata office of central board of film certification. Among one of the most ludicrous reasons cited by the local censor board was the film’s lack of respect for Joseph Stalin! Both the directors had vowed to make their films visible on the net.
However, there is a saving grace. In a democratic country, it is extremely difficult to ban or gag criticism. The director of the Bengali film appealed to the film certification appellate tribunal. The tribunal based in Delhi dismissed most objections raised by the local censor board, like the depiction of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and a reference to the Tatas withdrawing from Bengal — after it watched the film.
People like me who may not have gone to watch the movie Kangal Malsat are more likely to do so now. The censorship board has actually applied the Streisand effect in creating a buzz for content that it tried to censor.
The attempt of the cat’s paw to abuse the court processes has royally boomeranged. Not only has the court withdrawn the order to block URLs, it has put a spotlight on the activities and performance of the institute, which clearly could not have been the objective of the court case. It has also alerted the government to the misuse of the provisions of the Information Technology Act 2000 and woken up the civil society. More than ever, Indian citizens are now determined to protect the freedom of expression on the internet. And the boomerang and Streisand effect are sweet extras.
(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These
are his personal views)