There’s one lesson that Kapil Sibal would do well to learn: it’s folly to spit into a head wind. You only end up spitting on yourself.
Ever since Sibal went public with his fulminations against Internet companies demanding pre-screening of content on their platform that in his estimation is objectionable, many more Facebook pages have sprung up mocking and parodying his ministerial overreach that takes him and the country down the slippery slope of Internet censorship.
Some of the incendiary comments therein will likely trigger in him the same response that led him to haul Internet companies into his office and badger them on the user-generated content on their platforms. It will only drag him further into the downward spiral of frothing-at-the-mouth grandstanding that started it all off.
Sibal hasn’t exactly made a persuasive case for controls over user-generated content with his shifting targets: where once his objections arose from “offensive content” about Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he now claims that it is in fact unbridled “hate speech” and communally sensitive material on the Internet that he wants curtailed.
Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah too came out swinging on Sibal’s behalf, claiming that the debate over free speech on the Internet wasn’t just an arm-chair academic exercise for him.
“I’ve had to deal with stone-throwing mobs on the streets because of some moron in the United States,” Abdullah told The Hindu. “Each time, people could have got killed. For me, this isn’t an airy-fairy ideological issue, it’s a real problem.”
But what Sibal and Abdullah miss out is this: There is, of course, plenty of material on the Internet and on the social media platforms to inflame minds that are just waiting for a spark. There is also borderline-scurrilous content that targets political leaders or satirises them. But in the marketplace of ideas that is the Internet, they don’t get enormous traction.
It’s a giant leap for Abdullah to claim that the stone-throwing kids in Srinagar were in fact incited by some outlandish conspiracy theory they encountered on the Internet. If anything, the word-of-mouth rumour mills that operate in community neighbourhoods are far more to blame for these eruptions.
If anything, with social media sites like Facebook, there are adequate provisions even under the Terms of Service for anyone who is offended to ask for them to be pulled down. If anything, the problem with Facebook is that it has made it far too easy for easily offended users to have other people’s accounts or content removed. Indicatively, in 2008, a woman who posted photographs of herself breastfeeding her baby had her account yanked. (Which then gave rise to a Facebook group called: “Hey Facebook, Breastfeeding is Not Obscene.”)
The bigger point from the whole controversy that Sibal has kicked up is this: he wants to create a nanny state that takes it upon itself to protect easily offended Internet users from the wild world of the web. And from the pushback he has received from the Internet community he has incensed, perhaps he will likely learn the wisdom of not spitting into the wind.