Social media -- Liberty of man at what price?

Aug 30, 2012, 08:40 IST | Vikram Sood

Let us face reality. In the real world there is no such thing as complete unfettered freedom of speech. My liberty is restricted by the other man's liberty and sensitivities.

Vikram SoodLet us face reality. In the real world there is no such thing as complete unfettered freedom of speech. My liberty is restricted by the other man’s liberty and sensitivities. Similarly, I cannot (although it happens in India all the time) play my 2000 watt music system at full volume just because I have one, start my prayers on the loudspeaker at the crack of dawn when most of the rest are enjoying their last hours of blissful sleep, block the road for my daughter’s wedding and disrupt traffic or drive on both sides of the road.

Article 19(2) of our Constitution places some caveats to this freedom, including for reasons of morality, decency, incitement to offence, defamations and the expected reason security and sovereignty of the state. These constitutional provisions and exceptions were made when there was no Internet that is controlled in areas outside the sovereign control of any country, except in those where the servers are located. Besides, the communications revolution transcends boundaries and has not yet discovered its ultimate frontier.

Jihad Watch site
Wrong call: Instead of blocking the Jihad Watch site, Indian intelligence should be watching sites like Jamat ud Da’wah, the ideological mentor of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba

If the information highway had the width of a narrow mountain trail a few decades ago where we moved at the pace set by the mule, today in comparison the highway is more than five kilometres wide and growing, with information exchanged in microseconds and also growing. As before, terrorists, criminals and other malcontents have misused all facilities the society has provided. The trick then is to prevent misuse of the highway, not just blocking it for everyone. That is retrograde.

The use of Internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites by Pakistani anti-Indian and jihadi organisations is well known. Jamat ud Dawah, the ideological mentor of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba has its own website and a Twitter account and uses YouTube to propagate its radical ideology. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the military arm of the rabid Sunni organisation, Sipah-e-Sahaba renamed Ahlesunnat Wal Jamaat also has a Facebook account and several Twitter accounts with a strong anti-Jewish, anti-Christian and anti-Hindu content. These, and a host of similar other accounts and sites are the kind that Indian intelligence should be watching instead of blocking sites like Jihad Watch considered to be a counter jihad movement and especially after the experience of Tahrir Square.

It is ironic that India is now being hectored on the issue of freedoms whereas we know that US citizens are covered by one of the world’s most extensive surveillance programmes today. There is an old motto of the National Security Agency of the US — the world’s largest surveillance agency for its Interception staff, “In God we trust, the rest we monitor.” This dates back to the Cold War much before the Global War on Terror.

Post September 2001, US intelligence agencies as part of what was initially called Total Information Awareness, outsourced 70 per cent of its activities of its US $ 70 billion budget. Consequently, private corporations like Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, CACI International who became partners with the CIA, NSA and Pentagon for the most sensitive foreign and domestic intelligence operations. By 2006, the NSA was looking at mass harvesting of information on social networks on the Internet.

There are protests but surveillance has to be an accepted fact of life. It also means that this capacity to eavesdrop cannot be unfettered either. The US Department of Homeland Security creates fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to scan social media networks and blogs by using key words and then tracking people through this. The FBI has also been pushing for a more intensive monitoring of Internet traffic. The former head of the British GCHQ, equivalent but much older than our NTRO, Sir David Ormand had, in April this year, recommended that social media sites be covered strictly.

This, however, is not to justify the gaucheries of the recent past when a panicky government over reacted to curb genuine civil dissent. A democracy must allow freedom of speech which must include satire and strident criticism, for this is one of the most essential ingredients of democracy. The rulers must know what the people are saying and what bothers them the most. This is a far better open source intelligence and a better yardstick than any other intelligence output on the mood of the people. We thus need to have the facility to keep a watch and separate the genuine critic and dissenter from the terrorist or agent provocateur.

In the end, ‘what price liberty of man’ remains the most difficult question.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) 

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