Face the heat

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We don’t know if the Indian state fancies itself as a modern-day Greek hero Hercules but the internet is definitely comparable to the Lernaean Hydra the hero is out to kill. The Hydra, apart from its multiple heads, also had the diabolical ability to sprout two for every one that was cut off. “For every one way of blocking the net, there are many to circumvent it. So if you shut down a blog or a web site which is considered obscene or defamatory, another will be opened up,” says Sudeip Nair of Bombay Elektrik Project, shrugging off any suggestions of hysteria at the Delhi High Court’s threat to do a China on internet sites. 
Nair is not the only one to be a little amused and wholly unconcerned about the threat. What he and the others are worried about is the attempt to usher in definitions of terms like blasphemy and obscenity which seem to have no room for manipulation. “If I design a bikini with the imagery of a Hindu god, to some it might seem offensive and to some an expression of faith. In a democracy there needs to be room for all kinds of viewpoints. This is not a totalitarian state,” says Arjun Mahajan, a photographer. The state needs to understand, Mahajan says, that these sites are not merely recreational. “I have a page on Facebook for my professional dealings instead of a web site. In case you don’t like something, simply flag it,” he says.
Few buy the government’s argument that material on these sites can incite religious violence especially since they see political parties stoking the same fires for their own gains. “Political parties choose their candidates on the basis of caste, ethnicity and say so openly. Then why is there no demand to ban them also?” asks sociologist Sanjay Srivastava.
Gul Panag, one of the first Bollywood celebrities to take to Twitter, posts: “this censorship of digital media is paramount to… fascism.” Says Srivastava, “There is no research of any kind to suggest that what is shown on television or movie screens has a direct impact on how society functions. If that was the case, then the censor board’s policies should have ensured a society bursting with honourable men and women.”

“Is this being done also in the wake of the use of social networking sites during the Lokpal bill agitation,” wonders Mahajan, while Panag feels this is to stem criticism of political leaders. “There is very little real criticism of our elected representatives in the mainstream media. They [politicians] have no business seeking recourse behind bans on other mediums,” she fumes. But while self-censorship exists, there are also “organised groups out there pursuing agendas”, admits Panag, who says she has been targeted by different religious groups for her views. “People spewing venom on the net is not the government’s problem.”

Unofficial estimates place India’s net users at 100 million, third only to the US and China. The number is expected to grow to 300 million in a few years. For youngsters, this medium is an extension of their fundamental right to freedom of expression but, as writer Santosh Desai warns, without any of the responsibility that accompanies it in the real world. “You need to be accountable for what you put up on a social forum. In the real world when you publish your thoughts or opinions you cannot have the cloak of anonymity. On the net, however, you can say something libellous and hide. That is a concern.”
Legitimate questions regarding the freedom on the net are being asked the world over but they always get ignored in debates like the current one. Says Desai, “We could be at a crossroads from which we could go down the route of monitoring which is easier said than done or we could begin a healthy debate on the internet and responsible usage.”

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