New Delhi has won a victory in its battle against the Internet companies. The materials the government considers objectionable have been removed. But it may prove to be an illusory victory. A country that aspires to be a software superpower attempts to gag expressions and encourage self-censorship will hurt itself. The creeping Internet censorship (not to mention the clumsy handling of Salman Rushdie’s non-visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival) certainly takes some shine away from the world’s largest democracy.
The irony is that the measures extracted from the Internet companies will not deter the tech-savvy from posting their thoughts on cyberspace beyond the reach of Indian officialdom. Twitter’s plan to allow country-specific censorship and Google’s decision to create a separate domain for users operating from India will certainly make it easier for the government to remove objectionable tweets and blogs. The same material, though, will be visible to all outside India. A text or an image deemed objectionable to the government and not visible to India-based users can be emailed back to India for circulation. Will the government then demand to censor emails?
In order to preserve freedom of expression, Google has also created a pathway for bloggers in India to post their musings outside Indian domains. The solutions offered by Twitter and Google amount to placing a blindfold on users on Indian soil, while the rest of the world remains free to view the offending material and circulate.
What is even worse is that each request to remove a tweet could expose the government to global ridicule. Twitter said it would indicate where a tweet has been removed and post the removal requests it received from governments, or other organisations at www.chillingeffects.org — providing a running tally of the censors of the world.
Of course, India is a late comer in the game of Internet censorship. China, Saudi Arabia and a host of authoritarian countries have practiced it for decades. China, in fact, has created a parallel Web universe for its citizens protected by the “Great Firewall of China”, where only government approved sites can be accessed. China does not allow Facebook or Twitter. Its own Chinese language micro-blogging site Weibo is strictly monitored, and offending postings are removed in real time.
Despite the censors, enterprising Chinese bloggers manage to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding sensitive events. It is thanks to microblogging that a corruption scandal involving a deadly train crash and an uprising in Wukan village in South China that drove out party and government officials came to light. Recently, China has ruled that all microblog users would have to provide their real names before being allowed to post their thoughts — effectively daring them to be critical of the government. The decision will have a chilling effect on dissident postings, but one has not yet seen the last of this cat-and-mouse game.
Ironically, Indian officials, who often brag about the country’s democratic tradition and free media, are threatening to go the Chinese way. The demand that companies pre-censor postings and identify the creators and their locations is absurd. Before making such demands that one would expect from Chinese commissars officials would do well to study the impact of the all-out Chinese attempts at censorship, its embarrassing failures and the resultant global notoriety.
Of course, governments and courts of a country have the right to enforce their laws on the companies — and servers — located on their territories. Twitter and Facebook regularly remove items as demanded by US corporations when they violate copyright. Google had blocked thousands of sites from their search engine in China for a long time before moving the servers to Hong Kong. Over the past decade, a borderless cyberspace has been chopped up along the lines of state sovereignty and their citizens subjected to a variety of restrictions. Even South Korea, the world’s most connected country, recently jailed a photo journalist for providing the link to a banned North Korean site in his sarcastic tweet. Vietnam has jailed bloggers on charges of violating the law, as have Thailand, Bahrain, Oman and a host of other countries.
It is hard to see that the acts of Internet censorship have made any country more secure or, for that matter, silenced the critics. The satisfaction of muzzling critics anyway can only be short-lived.
The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online