Dear Kapil Sibal,
As I watched you, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, give a press conference yesterday where you complained about offensive content in cyberspace and ways it could be controlled, a few things crossed my mind…
1. Yes, I agree with you one hundred per cent that there is a lot of offensive content in cyberspace and it should definitely be removed. But the moot question is, whether it can be done in the first place!
2. I am sorry to say but as you continued with your talk of how the Internet companies didn't co-operate with you and how there could be regulatory devices to control content like spam (!) and other fancy ideas, I realized one thing: Our IT Minister has so little understanding of the Internet!
Also read: Sibalji, I understand you, sir!
As a humble netizen among millions, let me explain to you a few basics of cyberspace and social networking…
1. Facebook has 800 million users who generate billions and billions of status messages and comments while exchanging millions and millions of photos, links, notes, quizzes and causes every single day! Do you think it is even possible to monitor, filter or censor (even if you don't call it that) such a gargantuan amount of data?
2. When we come to Google, the universe gets even bigger. For example if I search for the exact phrase "Kapil Sibal", then I get 2.3 million pages! "Sonia Gandhi" gets you 9 million and "Rahul Gandhi" gets 14.5 million! Now this is not Google-generated content but that generated by atleast thousands and thousands of websites across the world.
If I type Congress, then we get a mind-boggling 426 million pages as it is such a generic term.
Now how do you know what is offensive and what is not? It is next to impossible! Even if you created a magic filter, then it would collapse. What if someone wrote an article praising you, but the comments section was filled with abuse? This is just a small problem of filtering. Spellings can be changed and controlling of photographs is equally perplexing.
3. Even if you managed to get hold of a "Magic Wand" to remove abuse, you have no idea of the "Multiplier effect" in cyberspace.
Say someone puts something offensive and you manage to get it removed. But he or she would have emailed it to hundreds of accounts or it would have been put up on the walls of hundreds of Facebookers or retweeted hundreds of times.Now if it gets really popular or even notorious thanks to your removal, that number could well become millions!
4. Also, if there is a Facebook fanpage say of the Congress party, then someone may post offensive content on your wall and it may be some time before it is pulled down. That's the problem with the democratic nature of the Net, which has both good and bad things.
5. There's another problem as to what is offensive in the first place. I'm quite sure that I myself would find the photos you showed in the press conference quite offensive. But then I am a satirical writer myself and millions of people might find what I write offensive and I may in turn find their comments about me offensive!
Just because you are in the government doesn't mean that mean your judgement is impeccable.
For example: What if we found that in India, people find the comments of Digvijay Singh the most offensive of all? How would you handle that?
6. Finally, the Internet is not like river that can be damned, but an ocean which cannot be tamed. If you remove something somewhere, then something somewhere else will pop up with greater force. The more you fight it, the more the problem will grow. That's the way this medium is!
That is not to say that nothing can be done!
Every government in the world should understand the medium before jumping into it.
Also read: Is social media becoming a monster?
Here are some things you can do…
1. Certain disgusting photos and disgusting comments about certain communities, groups and religions would never be allowed in civil space. You can crack down on the offending websites and social networking "groups".
Many offensive groups have come on Facebook which get millions of followers and are still are pulled down because a complaint has been lodged.
You can go after "groups" and "websites" but not after individual "users" and "blogs" because there are so many.
Know the difference!
2. There should be a Kapil Sibal fanpage as you have done a lot of good things like educational reforms, attempt for cheap laptops for students, banning spam calls etc. Many of you politicians and parties should come on this medium and popularize support in a genuine and not half-hearted manner that is being done now.
Just ask US President Barack Obama, who has mastered social networking. In fact one of the Iraqi commanders even had a Facebook page about operations. A comment like "Killed 10 Iraqi terrorists today" would get thousands of likes. Now I may find that offensive, but then that's how governments of the world are using this medium for their own benefit!
3. While you cannot go after each and every comment, there are some myths and lies about certain parties which are repeated a few million times and people start believing it as a truth. Clarify on these issues.
4. Finally an appeal works much better than a threat in this medium. What you said yesterday sounded like a veiled threat and I don't know if you've noticed, but all of cyberspace has simply gone ballistic! You have achieved exactly the opposite of what you had set out to do.
In UPA1 all your ministers looked sincere and in earnest and you were all liked so much that you were voted back to power with a greater majority. In UPA2, the arrogance has backfired more than the scams.
You may still find it easier to have the illusion of control in the real world.
In the virtual world? It's virtually impossible!
One of the millions of simple Netizens on Facebook, Twitter and the Blogosphere.
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