Kapil Sibal, India's telecom minister, this week appears to have drawn more attention with his proposal to pre-filter the content on social media Web sites than all the publicity he got for some of the good work he did in the area of education. The hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal emerged as one of India's most tweeted on Tuesday.
Sibal met executives from Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft on Monday, urging them to screen content and remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory material before any of it goes online.
According to Sibal, these companies are "not willing to cooperate with the government".
The whole exercise has not gone down too well with the Netizens. Yesterday, when I logged onto Facebook, I read many updates from friends that began with the phrase, "Kapil Sibal is an idiot". A friend's profile status read as: "Now, every time I update my status I have to take permission from the Telecommunication Minister."
Yet another said: "Kapil Sibal has achieved the uncommon distinction of trumping Sharad Pawar as the most reviled politician in India. Instead of focusing on making India 100 percent broadband connected, he's attempting to censor social networking sites."
Most Facebookers, bloggers and Twitter users feel that Sibal's proposals for a "prefiltering system" would limit free expression and be impossible to implement.
Whether pre-filtering content on social media is possible or not is one side of the story; but the other more important aspect is whether we need to "pre-filter" the content on the social media.
My view is that of every other media: social media, too, needs to be responsible. There needs to be some kind of regulation for the new media for social media today is emerging as a very strong medium. While it is a democratic medium, not everyone knows how to exercise their freedom responsibly without hurting or harming someone else.
But then, it's not the service providers--Facebook, Google or Twitter--which can decide what is good and bad content. And there is little sense in the government trying to arm-twist these companies to do that. They need to understand the Internet before making any statements.
More importantly, I feel that Sibal's views on the social media reflect two inabilities within the government:
- Lack of vision: This not only relates to social media or the Internet, but to a whole host of issues. It points to short-sightedness. The government can't see the larger picture. The content on the Internet and social media Web sites is a very large and critical issue that the Microsofts and Googles of the world cannot, and should not, try to address. For this, you need national and probably even international regulation.
- Lack of leadership: And this applies as much to other countries as to India. We do not have leaders who have the right leadership qualities to think about important issues, work around policies that can address those issues, and get regulations passed without wasting much time. The decision-making process is far too slow. All politicians seem to know is how to trigger debates and controversies, and divert attention from more critical issues.
The malicious, disparaging and offensive content on social media cannot be viewed in isolation. Nor can the security and privacy issues surrounding the Internet.
The Internet is very much a part of society. The threats it poses are real, not virtual. And it's high time we all realized that.