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Internet freedom

December 9, 2011

A pornographic message sprawled across the profile of Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress Party, on her birthday, has added spice to the cyber-war between India's communications minister and millions of Internet users.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi
The online profile of Congress President Sonia Gandhi was defaced on FridayImage: UNI

Ever since pledging a crackdown on on "unacceptable" online content earlier this week, Indian Communications Minister Kapil Sibal has become the object of wrath, ridicule and vilification on the net.

India's Communications Minister Kapil Sibal
Kapil Sibal has triggered ire among India's netizensImage: UNI

"The entire nation is criticizing the government for trying to control the flow of information in the world's biggest democracy," wrote the blogger Abhisek at abhisays.com. "For a nation that has close to 120 million users, of which 43 million users are on Facebook, 3.6 million on Google plus and 3.5 million on Twitter, the move to screen user content is complete nonsense. Failing in performance and good governance, the India government is trying to gag the voices of discontent and dissent."

The bureaucratic and administrative impossibility, and hence for many the absurdity, of trying to screen millions if not billions of messages and postings apart, what has roused the ire of India's net community is the fact that the minister reportedly approached Internet giants such as Google, Yahoo! and Facebook with the request to screen images and data before they are uploaded.

'Insulting and inflammatory content'

Sibal reportedly demanded such self-regulation in order to filter out deeply "insulting" material and not everybody condemns his stand.

The minister has found support among such public personages as writer, diplomat and politician Sahshi Tharoor, or Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, who tweeted: "We want the luxury of free speech but not the burden of responsibility for how we use that freedom."

Screenshot of waveindia.org/bloggers
Indian bloggers are dotted all over the country

Both Tharoor and Abdullah hinted that "inflammatory content" could take on a literal shade of meaning given the deep religious divide in a country like India. History has shown that as well as religion caste, class or ideology can turn incendiary, which has long been a cause of bellyache for India's intellectuals.

The comparably younger generation of bloggers and Internet users seem more spontaneous in their celebration of boundless cyber freedom and less inhibited by any thoughts of the social and political responsibility attending upon it.

IndiBlogger.in invited Internet users this week to give their "take" on Sibal's proposals and has received a rich haul of responses. "I say let's throw in 500 KFC fiery grilled chicken buckets for Kapil, Sonia and Dictatorship Co.," said Xeno from Kolkata. Harish Ghodki from Bhopal wrote: "What, are we China now!?" Whereas Sujith V from New Delhi said perhaps more thoughtfully: "Censorship of media is the first step to authoritarianism."

Author: Arun Chowdhury
Editor: Anne Thomas

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