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The perils of censorship in the age of tech

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Sunil Rajguru
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As newer and newer technologies come, it becomes easier for the citizens to make their voices heard. But that always rattles the governments of the day and there are always renewed efforts to censor those voices.

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While America’s First Amendment in 1791 safeguarded their citizens free speech along with that of the press; India’s First Amendment curiously in 1951 put restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Despite that there was freedom of the press and the citizens made their voices heard very loudly, especially in the early 1970s. That led to the Emergency of 1975-77. However, its end led to a more vocal press and citizens along with the concept of the public interest litigation (PIL).

The post-Emergency era

Newspapers and magazines flourished in the 1980s as TV sets mushroomed all over India. The next attempt to muzzle the press came in 1988 via the Defamation Bill. That was seen as a draconian anti-press move but luckily there was so much outrage that it was shelved. It may have been one of the reasons for the government ultimately being defeated in 1989. The 1990s saw Liberalization, satellite TV and the Internet. Public discourse was changed for good. We had multiple narratives 24X7. We ended the millennium thinking that censorship was a thing of the past and there were simply too many channels of freedom of speech to clamp down upon.

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The new millennium

The next assault against online free speech came in the form of Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000. That was a sweeping section in which almost anyone could be put in jail because it included words and phrases like: …grossly offensive… meant for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience… ill will. Luckily that was struck down.

If you thought that was bad, then the Social Media age trumped it all. Now each and every citizen practically gave their sundry views 24X7. Globally, Facebook has close to 3 billion users; YouTube 2.5 billion; WhatsApp 2.2 billion; Instagram 2 billion and so on. How are you going to monitor and censor all these channels? It’s impossible!

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But what is Fake News?

Which brings us to fake news, the scourge of our times. But what is fake news in the first place? Who defines it? Who checks the fact checkers? The government? The courts? The media? NGOs? You can’t monitor hundreds of billions of pieces of opinion that are generated every day, especially when there’s no consensus on the definition.

Fake news no longer has anything to do with the truth, but it’s become a political weapon. 

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In the US anything the Democrats say is fake news for the Republicans and vice versa. But at the end of the day it’s a power game. The Democrat opinion generally prevails because they have the media, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and academia on their side. It’s not because they are right. 

The 2023 Indian amendment

The latest assault in India comes with the amendment of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023. It deals with the issue of “fake or false news” and “fact checking”. Again, in the last decade there has been no agreement on the definition of fake news and the world over rival parties always describe each other as the purveyors of fake news. Who fact checks the fact checkers? 

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It’s quite a slippery slope. Even if you are happy that your party is in power and gets to call the shots, tomorrow you could be sitting in the opposition and your opponents would be defining fake news and fact checking. What about deep fakes? It will be quite easy to create one such content item, get your opponent arrested and then the onus may be on the accused to prove that it is a deep fake. We are entering quick sand.

On the Internet, there is the concept of the DDoS attack (distributed denial-of-service). One basically floods a website from multiple sources and crashes it. When you legally make a piece of content criminal without due diligence and the foundation of sound law, in a single stroke you could render millions of opinions illegal and hence millions of citizens criminal. What does law enforcement do? That’s like a DDoS attack on them when they should be out solving actual real world crimes.

Censorship, no matter how noble, always tumbles down the slippery slope.

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