Look what you have gone and done

Published: 10 December, 2011 06:11 IST | Rohan Joshi |

This was going to be a Facebook post, but now I can't do that thanks to you, so now I have to put this in a newspaper.

Dear Mr Sibal, This was going to be a Facebook post, but now I can't do that thanks to you, so now I have to put this in a newspaper. Look what you've gone and done. Earlier this week, you made statements that suggest that you want social networking companies like Facebook and Google+ to pre-screen content for incendiary abuse before it's uploaded. (Most men reading this have but one question; "Wait, am I still allowed pornography or not?") There are two problems with your statement Mr Sibal; one, you're trying to tell the Internet what to do. And two, you're trying to tell the Internet what to do.

Mr Sibal, telling the Internet to behave itself is a bit like telling the Ebola virus to 'be gentle, it's my first time.' Your statement suggests, rather worryingly, that you do not actually understand the Internet, or ever use it. People on the Internet abuse anything. Abuse on the Internet is about as incendiary as a wet sponge. Internet abuse is not a thing of power. It is white noise. And unlike some very real problems facing your government, in the case of Internet abuse, if you ignore it, it just... goes away.

Or it would have, until you, in your misguided enthusiasm, drew attention to it. For example, earlier this week, a cleric was rumoured to have said that women shouldn't buy vegetables of phallic shape, as they will make them think of male genitalia. The larger problem here is that until the cleric mentioned it, most women weren't thinking that at all. Except now that he's brought it up, that's all anyone's thinking. You see the flaw in the plan?

Let's also consider the sheer operational impossibility of what you want. 250 million photographs are uploaded to Facebook every single day. That's just photographs. So imagine how many posts, status updates and links go up? Even if just one per cent of those are Indian, you'd need a task-force so big to sift through it all, it'd make the UID project look like a kindergarten play.

Perhaps you mean well Mr Sibal. I looked up your credentials on Wikipedia. And your personal profile says you are a respected lawyer, but that's okay, nobody's perfect. It says you are a Member of Parliament, having won a hard-fought battle for your seat against Tulsi from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. But my favourite part of your Wikipedia profile is the part on top, where it says 'This article has been nominated to be checked for its neutrality.' Just like most Congress acolytes, yes?

There is another problem with attempting to censor the Internet. It makes two false assumptions. First of all, it assumes the Internet is a medium. It is not. It is an ecosystem. You do far more than transmit information on the Internet. You interact with people. And so you need to deal with crime and incitement on the Internet as you do in a society. You cannot pre-ban, you must wait for a crime, and then prosecute on a case by case basis. What you want to do currently is the online equivalent of fining every car that goes at 50 kph because it has the potential, in future, to break the speed limit.

Even if you do want to treat the net as a medium Mr Sibal, there's another problem with attacking it. Unlike most other media, when you attack the Internet, the Internet returns fire. Attack TV, and its viewers will at worst curse you every time you appear on screen. Attempt to censor the newspapers , and you'll get a well-reasoned letter to the editor saying "You cannot pre-censor a piece as offensive because if it hasn't been uploaded/printed,  the piece is value-neutral. It is only incendiary and offensive if someone sees it and is then offended by it. PS, when will we get photos of the Bachchan baby?"

The Internet isn't like that. People on the Internet don't have distractions. What people on the Internet do have, is time. You say something that pisses the Internet off, and in two hours there'd be 80 composited pictures of you, most of them involving some combination of animal, compromising position and swear-words you've never heard of because you don't actually use the Internet.

Mr Sibal, you could argue that it's not censorship you want, but measured regulation. Which is a bit like saying "It's not a tomayto, it's a tomaahto." So please let it go. Let the Internet take care of itself.

Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo

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