Saturday, 21 January 2012

Being Indian: Freedom Of Expression

I try to vent out my anger with this country and my fellow Indians by posting once a week. Most often, I don't feel better when I let it out but with this blog, I am able to channelize my anger productively. But now, the newspapers tell me Facebook, Google and most of these open spaces are going to be banned. This makes me mad because I know that my writings and many others are going to be targeted and defined as “objectionable and offensive”. This is an abomination because you and I are entitled to our right to freedom of expression and this does not happen in a democracy.

In a situation like this, I feel naïve. I remember in school, we were taught to think of our constitution and country with pride, a country that was for the people, of the people and by the people. A democracy. And we spend years believing how true that is and are stunned at a point like this. What part of pre-screening content on social networking sites is democratic? A cartoonist would use his drawing board to express his anguish against the many issues that haunt our society.* As much as we believe social networking is a complete waste of time, it is a common man's canvas to express himself about the same.

Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and many others serve as platforms for free speech. Anyone can log on to any of these sites and write or post a video with his/her opinions. There is no editor telling you that your opinion doesn't count. There is no authority that is preventing you from being heard. It is absolute freedom of expression where every opinion counts. The best part about these websites is that any information that you find offensive can be reported and removed. It is a reflection of the democracy that we want to see in our country.

Yes, this kind of freedom is not always used productively. It is being misused by many to defame people and to spread hate speech against certain races and communities. Desecration of religious symbols too are common but generally don't last because people retaliate and make sure that these images and posts are removed. But is the solution to hate speech controlling free speech? No. Free speech in fact is the way out of it. Free speech enables one to sensitize people to issues. It invites discussions that use rationality to help people realize that in a public forum you must watch what you say. And this happens everyday on our Facebook walls, our blogs, on Youtube, etc. Most people are using these mediums responsibly, very well knowing that they are accountable for what they say thanks to traceable unique IP addresses.

While many us waste a lot of time on the internet browsing memes and taking stupid tests, the web is also being used productively to implement change in the society. The internet has helped mobilize many movements – today more people know about Irom Sharmila's protest thanks to pages and posts while Anna Hazare received attention from mainstream media. People are able to be vocal about their support by signing petitions from the convenience of their desks. The Ugly Indian on their birthday using Facebook, made people get out of their comfort zones and clean up parts of their neighbourhood. For activists, the reach is endless, it is no longer local – an activist can gather support for a cause from across the globe. As we speak, people are contributing money to buy this child a real drum kit to play on. That is the power of the web.

The internet is also a rich source of knowledge and is extensively used by students and working professionals to keep themselves up to date with the fast changing world. Harish Gupta from Bengali Market was recently quoted in the news stating that the children in his school often use Google to write their assignments. This received criticism from many stating that there is a lot of pornographic content on the internet and that children should be protected from the internet rather than encouraged to use it for educational purposes. This is absolutely irrational. This is saying we shouldn't step out of our houses as coconuts may fall and land on our heads. What is necessary instead is to educate parents and children to use this medium safely. Plenty of software is available to prevent pornographic and offensive content from showing up on search engines. A number of controls are already in place to prevent this. What we need is a better understanding of this medium rather than a ban.

My biggest concern however is how this is going to affect artists. A few years ago, social networking opened up countless opportunities for artists to showcase their talent to a large audience, absolutely everyone who's on the internet. The entertainment industry may have suffered a hell lot with the rampant piracy of their material. But upcoming artists have gained a platform that has helped them establish themselves without going through the mainstream media. What happens to these artists? What happens to the livelihoods of social media consultants and media professionals whose jobs revolve around the web? It is not just our ability to share the mundane details of our life that is at stake here. It is a lot more than that.

But what happens if the government decides to ban these sites and takes control of the user edited information that is being posted on the internet. It is a term that we are all well aware of. It is an act that we have at some time been victims of. Moral policing. Who decides what is objectionable and offensive? My friend said my blog is sure to go if the government has its way simply because everything I say will be defined as not Indian Culture. The writer from Mumbai will surely agree with them. If the control of information on the web goes to the government, the political party in power will decide what you say, what you see and what you should think.

Right now the power to decide what we say and see on the internet lies with us. But if this ban is in place, it is going to slip away. I am sure that people will stand up to this then. But why wait? Are we waiting for them to take our freedom away before we do something about it? This is a democracy. We all have the right to freedom of expression and if there's anything money can't buy, it is that. So before it's too late, stand up to this – write to Kapil Sibal, change your profile picture, put up a status about it or write a blog. Trust me, they are listening.

*Courtesy: Cartoonist Sudhir Tailang on Big Fight, NDTV

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