A brazen attempt at political censorship

British writer and journalist Auberon Waugh's signal contribution to the English language is the phrase 'chattering classes'. Waugh used the term to disparage the 'metropolitan middle-class'; these days the description would fit the socially mobile, the educated and the fashionable among the urban middle-classes.

They are alert, have an opinion on everything and are eager to express them even if they are not particularly articulate in expressing them. The various social media fora offer them a platform to do so and hence they blog, tweet and upload videos with great gusto and amazing chutzpah. As a recent ad said, "He's always on Facebook!"

And since everybody has an opinion on everything, it is only natural that a lot of the opinions that are expressed are about the Government, those who run the Government and those who are perceived to be turning Government into a four-letter word. It doesn't help when the Government is seen to have failed to meet the aspirations of the chattering classes. As a result, commentary tends to be sharp and the language harsh.

Those of us who work for mainstream media know the rules of the game and avoid, to the extent possible, getting entangled with litigation by refraining from abuse, slander and defamation. But these rules don't apply to what has come to be known as 'alternative media': Since there is nobody wielding the proverbial blue pencil, anything goes. Well, not always. It would be unfair to say that there's no self-restraint; there is. But it tends to get overwhelmed at times.

Yet, despite all its shortcomings and flaws, this alternative media is any day more lively, more robust and definitely more honest than mainstream media. Most important, an ever increasing number of the metropolitan middle classes are getting increasingly influenced by opinions voiced or images shown on alternative media sites, be it a tweet, a blog post, a Facebook message, a caricature or a YouTube video.

The influence is not limited to lifestyle trends, as is misperceived by many, but extends to politics and political responses. The 'Arab Spring', which unfortunately has now turned into a bitter 'Arab Winter', was made possible in large measure by the extensive use of social, or alternative, media. Anna Hazare's grand show of strength at Ramlila Maidan was crafted around the skilful use of social media tools. To admit that is not to deny his equally carefully crafted charisma.

It is against this backdrop that we should see Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal's strange decision to wade into a needless battle with the chattering classes, a battle that will leave him with a bleeding nose. His claimed intention behind summoning representatives of Google, Yahoo! and other service providers and demanding that all content should be pre-screened to weed out that that which is 'offensive' is to preserve law and order.

That's bunkum. Delhi is abuzz with whispers  that certain exalted individuals, whom Mr Sibal describes as "popular politicians", are not pleased with being rudely caricatured and lampooned. Since most of the lampooning is facilitated by Photoshop, a logical extension of Mr Sibal's move should be to ban the program from Indian shores. This would be of a piece with what many Arab regimes once tried: Restricting the import and sale of printers as they feared these would be used for printing anti-establishment pamphlets. That could be followed with a ban on smart phones. Technology, after all, is a wrecker of the status quo.

Mrs Indira Gandhi tried to tame the Press during the 1975-77 Emergency. Lowly babus who could barely spell their names were appointed official censors and decided what was fit to print. Some 14 years later, Rajiv Gandhi tried to muzzle the media with his Press Bill but had to scrap it in the face of fierce protests.

We now have this brazen attempt to censor content on the Net, and it's definitely not propelled by the noble desire to preserve communal amity. Of the 358 'requests' for removal of pages and content received by Google from the Government between January and June this year, only eight pertained to 'hate speech', three to 'pornography' and one to 'national security'.

Among the rest, 39 pertained to 'defamation', 20 to 'privacy' and 14 to 'impersonation'. A whopping 255 'requests' cited 'criticism of Government' as reason for removing content or pages. Google was asked to remove 236 items from Orkut and 19 from YouTube for the same reason.

It's clear that what the Government is aiming for is political censorship of the Net. By doing so, it is treading the path adopted by China and other tin pot dictatorships. Understandably, the chattering classes are up in arms. And, as I said, a bloody nose awaits Mr Sibal.

The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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