Net loss: Kapil Sibal declares war on social media

It’s now a fight to the finish. The amazing diversity of the digital world is seen as a threat by the government that is going all out to annihilate it

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | December 6, 2011


Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

This column was written quite before December 5, when Kapil Sibal asked Google, Facebook and other websites to screen offensive material targeting prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi among others.

Only if the provocation is of an extraordinary nature would a company take on the Indian government. It is strong and can make a firm’s life difficult if it so desires. For internet giant Yahoo! that tipping point was the Rs 11 lakh fine imposed by the government for its refusal to part with a dozen or so email IDs and IP addresses as demanded by the home ministry. It approached the Delhi high court, which has stayed the order and has asked the government to respond.

There’s a battle of epic proportions raging between an increasingly paranoid establishment and a stubbornly independent digital world. Like all wars it started with skirmishes. These were about the interpretation of the various clauses of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 and the manner in which the establishment was implementing it at the ground level. IT Act 2000 was widely considered to be a balanced and an empowering piece of legislation necessary to bring about a certain form and structure to the rapidly evolving digital world. Detractors, with some justification, perceived the 2008 amendment not only as an urge of the government to take greater control of the burgeoning economy of the digital world but also to mould the ‘transmission and distribution’ of content. The digital world was suspicious of the government’s intentions, but still gave it the benefit of doubt (See ‘The Great Indian Strangulation Trick’ in the July 16-31 edition of Governance Now).
 

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The government, however, did not stop there. Riding on the back of genuinely alarming intelligence reports about terrorists using emails, voice-over internet protocol (VOIP) services, Instant Messengers and almost impossible to track BlackBerry enterprise services, the government tightened the screws by notifying the Information Technology (Electronic Service Delivery) Rules, 2011 in April. That’s when a full fledged war started.

It’s been fought hard and fast by both sides for close to eight months now. Unfortunately the mainstream Indian media, caught up in chasing deadlines, TRPs and sexy stories, has outdone the ostrich in burying its head and ignoring the raging war in its own domain. This is a war that is as much about control as it is about protecting the last remaining island of free speech and expression. The world of the internet is maddeningly diverse and it’s precisely this diversity that gives it the power to express a thousand thoughts without fear or favour. 

The political economy and business logic of mainstream media is such that establishing and running a media publication or channel requires massive capital infusion, deep distribution muscle, a conveyer belt precision in bringing out a standardised and benchmarked product. Add to this mix marketing and branding finesse. With such high stakes, success or failure for a media company depends only on two factors – customer acquisition and customer retention. These two factors are the foundations for building a viable revenue model.

Establishing economies of scale is critical for capturing a sustainable market share in the hypercompetitive Indian media landscape. The logic of economies of scale dictates a certain level of standardisation. It helps reduce costs and achieve an optimal time-to-market cycle. For a product company, say an automobile major where each model of a car has to be exactly the same as the next, it’s a logic that brings down costs while at the same time expanding the distribution net. But for a media company, say a newspaper or a magazine where the overall product has to be necessarily diverse, the logic of economies of scale leads to a situation of relative homogenisation of form and format due to syndication of content and outsourcing of operations. This makes it easier for the government to exercise a fair degree of implicit control over the entire media industry. It also makes the media houses insular, comfortable and unquestioning.

The digital world faces no such constraining business logic. In fact, it subverts it. One does not need massive capital, infrastructure, distribution muscle or even costly syndication deals to start a media outlet on the Internet. All one requires is an internet connection, genuine sources, an ability to write engagingly and a beginner’s understanding of technology. With the right use of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook one can actually reach millions of readers in a proverbial click of the mouse. It’s as easy as it sounds and has led to diverse points of view and opinions co-existing with each other. One can describe the digital world as the last Amazon forest, a unique eco-system of free speech and expression. A million mutinies, an essential part of a true democratic process, are constantly brewing in the digital space. It’s the ease with which the power of mass media has been put in the hands of the average Indian citizen that has got a lot of powerful forces within the Indian establishment jittery.

No one in his right mind would even venture to argue that Pakistan is a more democratic system than India. The writ of the Pakistani state doesn’t run in several parts of the country, the civilian government is fragile and shaky, the army casts a ubiquitous shadow over everything and ISI seems to have finger in every single misadventure. Yet in the period from July 2009 to June 2011, the Pakistan government sent less than 20 requests to Google for removal of ‘offending’ content. In contrast the Indian government sent 714 such requests. One doesn’t equate China with democracy. But the Chinese government, despite its massive headaches in Tibet and Xinjiang, sent Google only 121 such requests. (Refer to http://www.google.com/transparencyreport/governmentrequests/IN/)

A further analysis of the requests reveals the control mindset of the mandarins who are orchestrating this war. In the period between July and December 2010, the government had asked Google to remove 282 ‘offending’ items. The government had wanted 133 of these (100 from YouTube alone) to be removed because of ‘defamation’ and 11 (10 from YouTube) for ‘government criticism’.

In the period between January 2011 and July 2011 the government wanted Google to remove 358 items. The coterie of bureaucrats who were behind these requests wanted a whopping 255 items (239 from social media site Orkut) to be removed for ‘government criticism’.  Interestingly, just six of these removal requests were mandated by the courts. The remaining requests were mandated by ‘executive action’.

No one is denying, and should deny, government the power to act on genuine intelligence inputs to track and thwart terrorist attacks and to help in its criminal investigations.  Between July 2009 and June 2011 the government had placed before Google over 7,600 user data requests with the search engine giant complying in over 70% of the cases. But for every genuine request, there are others with blatant malafide intentions.

Over coffee a friend, who is in a very senior position in Google, told me about the increasing harassment that his team has to face every single day from suspicious bureaucrats coming up requests, which not only infringe upon basic norms of privacy of data but are downright undemocratic. The situation in rediff.com and Yahoo!, I found later through sources there, is no different. Another friend who runs an independent digital media website and who prides himself on his objectivity was harangued by a senior department of information technology (DIT) bureaucrat for being a “mouthpiece of a prominent search engine”.

The establishment, so to speak, wants to cut down this amazingly diverse digital jungle. It wants to make it into a well-manicured garden. It’s war and it’s as real it can get. But it’s also been a silent war with the mainstream media not realising the larger implications of this attack by the government. It doesn’t realise that it won’t be long before the war spills on to its turf.

Swaminathan is a National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Fellow. He is also a Senior Fellow in Observer Research Foundation (ORF). A dyed-in-wool digital native, he is one of the few surviving members of the original tribe of Internet crazies who used floppy diskettes, DOS prompts and WordStar.

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