In India, battling for a free internet

DELHI -- Should a democracy censor social media to avert crisis?
Written by Betwa Sharma, Correspondent

DELHI -- This week, India debated whether its government should censor the internet if social media sites could be being used to spread panic and mayhem, which led to deaths and displacement.

The government closed over 300 internet items. But it also blocked blogs and web pages, which were not espousing hate, and even blocked twitter accounts of journalists and critics. Some groups even called for banning social media sites in the country. Google, Facebook and Twitter announced that they were cooperating with the Indian government. Twitter closed fake accounts that were posing as the Prime Minister’s account. Many saw this as unnecessary since real accounts carry the verified ticker.

For those who are not following recent events in India- here is the backdrop. In July, ethnic violence erupted between indigenous Bodos and Bengali Muslims who live in the North-Eastern state of Assam. The Bodos claim that most of the Muslims living in Bodoland, an autonomous area of four districts, are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. They accuse the Muslims of encroaching on their land and resources as well changing the demographics of the area. The violence displaced an estimated 400,000 people and claimed almost 80 lives.

The troubles then spread to other parts of the country by way of demonstrations and protests. A Muslim-led rally, which turned violent, killed two people in Mumbai. Then, the internet was roped into this deadly saga. Doctored images of atrocities against Muslims in Assam and Myanmar were circulated to spread anger. Threatening messages sent via bulk texts led to an exodus of thousands of North-Easterners from cities living and working in South India. The Indian government saw Pakistan’s hand behind the week-long unrest.

Even before this round of violence, the Indian government had asked Facebook and You Tube to take down images that hurt religious sentiments. Read our story here.

The crackdown on social media led to a furious debate on whether internet regulation is needed in country as ethnically and religiously diverse as India- even if it is the world’s largest democracy that guarantees free speech as a fundamental right. Large sections of the media and civil society are concerned that the government is using this as an excuse to legitimize censorship in the future.

R. Chandrashekhar, a government official from the Information Technology Ministry, described it as a “targeted” response. “We are facing an extraordinary situation…it is an unprecedented situation seeing the social media being used to whip up all kinds of frenzy and to blow the winds of fear in different parts of the country, across different sections of people,” he said on a debated hosted by Indian news channel NDTV.

Anger was directed at the blocking of twitter accounts of journalists. It was seen as a clumsy, callous and sweeping response. Could the government have used social media to negate the rumors and panic? What emerged was a regulation-overkill.

Paresh Parnekh, an internet security expert, who runs the Bangalore-based the Centre for Internet & Society, writes that the free speech can be legitimately limited in certain circumstances - one way is temporarily banning of mass texts.“However it is unclear whether the government has exercised its powers responsibly in this circumstance,” writes Parnekh. “The blocking of many of the items on that list are legally questionable and morally indefensible, even while a some of the items ought, in my estimation, to be removed.”

Parnekh suggests that debunking rumors using social media and texts as the best "antidote." “However, almost no government officials actually used social media platforms to reach out to people to debunk false information and reassure them. Even a Canadian interning in our organization got a reassuring SMS from the Canadian government,” he writes.

As the storm spread, the U.S. government also weighed in. “But as the Indian government continues to investigate these instances and preserve security, we also always urge the government to maintain its own commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, rule of law,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said last week.

Others insisted that the present crisis is not caused by social media but by short-sighted government policies. Ethnic violence between Bodos and Muslims is recurring in Assam. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh has persisted for decades. So why blame Facebook and Twitter.

“What I’m scared of is suddenly saying that social media caused that and therefore social media should stop," Shekhar Kapur, the Indian film director who made Elizabeth and its sequel, said on the NDTV debate. He also opposed the sentiment that Indian people are not “mature” enough to deal with social media.

For now, the issue both conceptually and practically remains deeply divisive.

Venky Vembu, who writes for FirstPost, an online news website, opposed “circuitous justification – from some among the mainstream media – of the government’s blatantly partisan social media clampdown.”The columnist quoted Benjamin Franklin, “Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

So tell us, do some situations call for censoring the internet especially if social media is wielded for bad?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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