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More power to freedom of speech, not less

I can state with no reservations or embarrassment that I love the Internet. Some of this has to do with easy communication and a lot of it has to do with its enormous freedom. So Union minister Kapil Sibal's concerns about the Internet causing riots or civil unrest mainly created a sense of distaste for what looked like either an attempt to curtail freedom or to impose governmental restraints.

All over, there was initially complete outrage at Sibal's attempts and contempt for him as well. Gradually a small chorus of support began: yes, there were some terribly offensive things out there, yes, people could get hurt and perhaps some form of control was necessary �


Internet fears: Telecom and IT Union minister Kapil Sibal's concerns 
about the Internet causing riots or civil unrest mainly created a sense 
of distaste for what looked like either an attempt to curtail freedom or 
to impose governmental restraints

Are these fears serious? Will comments on the Internet lead to civil unrest? Look at it this way: Hosni Mubarak and Moammer Gaddafi would say yes. Someone's civil unrest can be someone else's freedom movement. Too facile and glib an explanation? Look at it another way: will all the deviant expression which finds space on the Internet lead to people becoming morally more bankrupt than they already are? Will they act upon their anger, unfettered by considerations of laws or civilisational roadblocks, speared on by the freedom of the Net?

These are questions, in fact, which no one can answer. The human propensity to cause harm has managed very well for millennia -- using every tool at its disposal -- before the Internet. Therefore, one could argue that the Internet is no worse or better than the postal system or the railways or carrier pigeons. 

And that is the basis of the dilemma, really. The more opportunity you give the human mind, the more it finds to either upgrade or downgrade itself. Nothing's either good or bad but thinking makes it so said some great man and so it is. 
But what the Internet does do is provide tremendous chances to voices previously unheard. Some of these will necessarily be banal, insightful, clever, silly, obvious, tangential, sentimental and yes, offensive. But then, information travels in what the jargon calls real time and that is an advantage we wonder how we ever lived without. 

Those who are wedded to the status quo will inevitably get frightened of anything which allows too much freedom. They are worried about misuse, often forgetting that misuse is an integral part of human nature. Fear of information is also normal -- almost every major religion in its early times tried to hide its scriptures from its believers. Ignorance they tried to tell us is bliss. 

So if we give Sibal the benefit of the doubt, he's concerned about the sanctity of our mental health and wants to keep us free of sleaze, filth, depravity and so on. Sadly for him, part of the freedom of being adult is to indulge in all these awful things. When they cross the lines that we have set, we already have laws and punishments to deal with slander, libel, hate, obscenity and so on.

As for offensive matters, as a journalist you come across it all the time -- and long before the Internet was invented. There will be few Mumbai journalists of the old days who will not have heard of an infamous letter writer -- or postcard writer really -- who bombarded magazines and newspapers with the most imaginative insults. 

I can't tell you his name but MSK's imagination was awe-inspiring. He would recommend the most deviant sexual practices and punishments to be applied to journalists and was never at a loss -- yellow postcards arrived with regularity. If the first time you were horrified and offended, by the 100th time, you just had to laugh and admire his lopsided (and unpublishable) skills.  Nothing I've read on the Internet since then has been worse, really. I'd say we need more power to our freedoms, not less.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist

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