While the talk of the town here in Silicon Valley is on the upcoming IPO of Facebook, across the world in India, Facebook and Google are in the news for different reasons.
A High Court judge in New Delhi is threatening to slap criminal sanctions on their sites for “objectionable” content and has warned them of China-style control if they do not impose a self-censorship regime. The basis for this ruling is a law passed in India last year that holds internet companies responsible for the content in their websites—a law that unfortunately does not reconcile the way that social networking or collaboration websites operate by using user-posted content. This could be dismissed as just an overzealous, lone High Court justice’s actions except that the Government of India has also unfortunately joined in with its support of possible criminal prosecution, taking exception to the caricature of political leaders by a few users of Facebook.
It is unfortunate that India, long a beacon of strong democratic traditions and a vibrant free press, is now going down the path to curtail freedom of expression online. This sets an unwelcome precedent for other nations with questionable democratic commitment to follow suit. As the San Jose Mercury News editorial on February 8, 2012 opined—“The world’s largest democracy has a serious freedom of speech problem.”
India now has the world’s third largest population of internet users, next only to the United States and China. Just like the cell phone revolution, internet access and the ability to collaborate online has leveled the playing field and opened up new vistas to India’s lower and middle class. According to their IP filing, Facebook has seen a doubling of their user base in India in just the past year, with more than 46 million active users. The power of Google search helps even rural children and farmers access to information and knowledge from the world over. I recently received a Facebook Friend request from the son of our family’s former maid in India—a true testament to how the internet and social collaboration websites have provided access to the rest of the world and have inspired the lower economic and educational strata to aspire to become members of the upwardly mobile urban Indian elite.
While the Government of India or the courts can reasonably request that content that could jeopardize public safety or national security be removed, any moral policing on user-provided content is misguided, Instead, India can take the true moral high ground that a democratic nation could disagree with an opinion but will defend the right of every individual to state it—even on a Facebook wall!
Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.
Yes, social media sites have to take responsibility for their content.
Social media penetration in India is less than 5%. Despite the proposed legislation, the vast majority will have no restrictions on their freedom of expression. Any comparison of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious democracy like India to communist China is invalid.
This regulation is intended to prevent misuse of internet for inflammatory causes with potential of causing violence and threat to social harmony, according to theDaily News Agency. Is it too much to ask social media companies to react with sensitivity and understanding of the society in which they choose to exist? Recently Facebook warned that their revenues could be impacted by content censorship. Shouldn’t the content belong to the company before they can claim censorship? And if it belongs to them shouldn’t they be responsible for it?
The main argument is that since users post content on social media sites, the sites themselves cannot be held responsible for the content. This is a very hollow argument, especially coming from Silicon Valley. Just imagine how EBay would have fared if it couldn’t vouch for the quality of the products of its sellers or payments by its buyers. Social media sites have thrived in a totally unregulated environment so far and have had no responsibility for side-effects of their products. For example, parents and teachers in schools around the United States now have to worry about cyber bullying.
Besides, freedom of speech does have sensible limitations. As cited in the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Schenck v. United States (1919), there are some circumstances in which restrictions on freedom of speech are warranted. India, with its diverse religious and ethnic identities, is a prime example of a place where incendiary speech could arguably be regulated.
Another popular argument is that it would be too onerous for social media sites to track the material posted. Given the extremely talented people who work in these companies I find this argument very weak. While user input cannot be controlled, what is published on the web can. With the advances in natural language understanding and speech recognition it is not far-fetched to imagine a situation where the content could be flagged for review by artificial intelligence algorithms. So instead of valley companies banding together and fighting various governments around the world, let them work on creating a smarter internet where anonymous hit and runs that cause mayhem and panic can be monitored and its publishers face the consequences of their irresponsible behavior. Now that is something all of us can “Like.”
Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.