Kapil Sibal’s suggestion to social media websites to filter “objectionable content” has drawn many charges, one of them is sycophancy.
“It is part of the Congress’ megalomania to not allow any criticism. It is sycophantic, stupid and it’s his way of currying favour with the power centre in the party,” rued Dr Aditya Nigam, of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.
Pranesh Prakash, programme manager at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, said, “Two high court decisions have made it clear that proactive filtering of the Internet by the government or private parties, places too high a burden on freedom of speech and hence is unconstitutional.”
The Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, notified in April, has had a “chilling” effect on both websites and Internet users, he said. Six out of seven “fake and pointless” take-down requests sent by the CIS under the IT Rules were accepted by websites.
The New York Times was the first to report that Sibal was upset over certain references to Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh on the Internet. The newspaper claimed, citing unnamed sources from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook, that Sibal showed the officials from these companies a Facebook page maligning Sonia. The paper quoted him as having said: “This is unacceptable.”
However, Sibal categorically denied this. Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, he said: “Whatever I said is not about any individual. But, every individual has the right to privacy.” Sibal asserted that the newspaper had concocted the story and denied that his suggestions amounted to censorship. “But guidelines were necessary to avoid the online publication of blasphemous content.”
Critics say that Sibal has not made it clear what constitutes “objectionable” content. Cyber law expert Karnika Seth said the Information Technology Act, 2000, too, gives no clear defintion for terms like “objectionable” and “blasphemous”, leaving room for interpretation.
Yogesh Bansal, founder and CEO of business and career-networking site Apnacircle.com, however, cautioned, “Social media can also be used negatively. The riots that recently took place in the Tottenham district of London are an example of misusing social media.”
Facebook said, “We recognise the government’s interest in minimising the amount of abusive content that is available online and will continue to engage with them as they debate this important issue.”
Rachel Bremer, a Twitter spokesperson, didn’t comment on this particular situation, but said that “Twitter is a strong supporter of freedom of speech and we don’t monitor or censor content”.
A Google spokesperson said it will take down what it deems is “illegal or breaks our terms of service. Access to information is the foundation of a free society.”
Social media analyst Raka Majumdar feels that if the websites buckle under the Government’s pressure, the common man will lose access to a “free expression pool”. “Whom does he turn to express himself?” she said. “Expression on social networking sites is often without prompting and so is absolutely free.”