Can cos and NGOs ally on free speech?

Last Updated: Wed, Jan 16, 2013 03:51 hrs

Disagreements over the nature and scope of national regulation of the internet, and the degree to which it will affect the freedom of expression as well as corporate growth, were the subjects of discussion at a seminar here organised by the India International Centre, the Editors Guild and the Index on Censorship.

The problem, as laid out by the Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash, is that while digital and electronic technology have provided “the biggest opportunity for the freedom of expression since Gutenberg invented the printing press”, it has also forced people to deal with a multiplicity of laws and jurisdictions. “In the offline world,” said Ash, “when in Rome, you did as the Romans do. But now, when in Rome — you’re also in Singapore.” The question is, what are the shared, legitimate limits on speech — since free speech has never meant unlimited speech. For example, if hate speech is demonstrably dangerous, then there is a case for careful legal blocking, said Ash, but clear, transparent, and legal blocks, not arbitrary as the Indian government had carried out in the summer of 2012.

Pioneering internet entrepreneur and Business Standard columnist, Ajit Balakrishnan, explained how the Indian state sometimes does and says more than it intends to. The draconian rules framed for the Information Technology Act, he said, were purely a product of the government’s “English-challenged” inability to draft rules well, not of its intent. It takes 25 years to understand any new law in India, he said — so, as in Mumbai recently, local officials will simply use the colonial-era laws they are familiar with to arrest people for online speech. Balakrishnan, who wrote sections of the IT Act, said that it was very important to protect internet intermediaries — corporations provide platforms — to ensure the productivity gains from digital technology are realised.

Kirsty Hughes of the Index on Censorship agreed the problem was that offline and online were not two different worlds—laws and their implementation cut across these. Thus the misuse of existing laws on hooliganism and so on to check online speech were global tendencies.

Google’s Ramanjit Singh Cheema said in any debate about lawful and appropriate regulation, it was important to recognise technological limits. The US Supreme Court had held in the first major judgment about online speech that any regulation applied to the net must be appropriate to its engineering. In effect, don’t hold platforms responsible unless they had direct editorial control. He added India needs laws enabling the internet, not just freeing it, and civil society must work with corporations to make that happen. True, said the Bangalore-based head of the Centre for the Internet and Society, Sunil Abraham, but civil society can make itself redundant if it doesn’t distinguish itself from corporations.

On free speech and religion, Ash said a basic principle should be “respect the believer, not the belief” but he added when he told a group of Indian MPs that, they had thrown their arms up in the air, and said “that can never happen in India.”

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