Internet Censorship: Silencing the Internet

The world before 1950’s was a place quite different than what it is today, it was untrusting, disconnected and ignorant. Among the great technological inventions which revolutionized the world, the internet was perhaps the greatest.  It single handedly ushered in an era of openness, shared knowledge and exponential growth. Along with the fore mentioned it brought in an age of uncurbed expression, the scale of which was unprecedented in the history of mankind. Free thought flourished, governments became accountable, media became omnipresent and the world became available at the tap of one’s finger, quite literally.

Internet Censorship: Silencing the Internet

One of the reasons for the success of internet, a massive advantage over the traditional media, was its complete lack of censorship. People could say anything, do anything, scathing criticism of the government, fearless promotion of ideologies and unhindered and unabashed artistic expression, all ran amok; The Internet became the last true repository of the unfiltered collective human conscious. The reason why unlike newspapers, books and television, the internet censorship was not present, it couldn’t be.

The technology was new and its users multitudinous, censor one page and a hundred others would pop up. Data could be published in any corner of the world and be accessed by any other. However today we are seeing more and more attempts by  regulatory authorities to ‘Censor’ the internet, to understand it we have to first understand what censorship actually means.

From the perspective of entertainment law “ Censorship is the deletion of speech or any communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the government or media organizations as determined by a body authorized to censor.”

Prior to 2008 Indian government mostly refrained from censoring Internet content , however after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks India has seen a rise in the trend of censoring digital content following the amendments to the Information Technology Act (ITA) that expanded the government’s censorship and monitoring capabilities.[i]

While there is no sustained government policy or strategy to block access to Internet content on a large scale, measures for removing certain content from the web, sometimes for fear they could incite violence, have become more common. Select ISPs including the widely popular ISP ‘Jio’ have themselves indulged in voluntary pornographic bans after the failed attempt of the Indian government to issue a blanket ban which was later revoked in 2018.

Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2015 report gives India a Freedom on the Net Status of “Partly Free” with a rating of 40 (scale from 0 to 100, lower is better). Its Obstacles to Access was rated 12 (0-25 scale), Limits on Content was rated 10 (0-35 scale) and Violations of User Rights was rated 18 (0-40 scale)  [1]

Internet Censorship: Silencing the Internet

World over the online community has faced attempts of blanket Internet bans, perhaps the most infamous being the ‘The great firewall of China’ which refers to worlds most comprehensive and advanced internet ban in force in the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government has imposed more than 60 restrictions implemented by state-owned ISPs, companies, and organizations. Which not only blocks website content, but also monitors individuals’ Internet access. The ban is of such severity that a decade ago Reporters without borders dubbed it as world’s biggest prison of internet citizens.

Similarly we have the Russian Blacklist, which is an extensive record of blocked URLs, sites and IP addresses the blacklist not only blocks access to material on drugs , child pornography and suicide methods but also blocks access to materials that the government thinks is “Extremist” in nature; Thus probably every political literature other than the Communist Manifesto.

Censorship in itself in not necessarily evil but in present times it has become a necessary evil, internet censorship becomes important where its expression threaten the fabric of the society, for example allowing free distribution of child pornography will be a mockery and abuse of liberty; However the problem with censorship arises where it comes in conflict with liberty, when instead of protecting the societies conscious it violates it.

The supreme court in Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India struck down section 66A of the IT Act 2000 that made posting information of ‘grossly offensive or menacing character’ punishable by up to three years in jail.[2]

Every Country in the world has in one way or another espoused the principle of liberty, to which free speech and expression is sine qua non. Censorship can become a tool for enforcing the governments morality on the subjects, what may see inappropriate to the government may be perfectly appropriate to another,  Critiques will lose their voice  when their opinion is stifled in their throats ,  Expression will suffer from the ever shifting socio-communal sway. In a country based on democracy , where its constitution itself makes provisions for freedom of  speech and expression (art. 19) there is no place of overarching claws of institutionalized morality. The unpleasant , the bitter and the ugly all have the right to voice their angst as much as the sycophants , for that is the true purpose of liberty and free speech. The fine line between monitoring and regulation needs to be drawn , proper channels need to be set up and a fair system of censorship needs to be evolved, not only in India but across the world, for a world with dismembered internet is a world of voiceless people, and a world of voiceless people is a world of authoritarian totalitarianism.