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Is the Power of Social Media Provoking Censorship?

December 13, 2011

When is civil resistance democratic change and when is it hooliganism? Who gets to decide? And what do they do about it--censor communications?

The desire of both corporations and governments to control what is said through social media has been exacerbated by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.

Governments want to control the content in order to prevent its effective use by anti-government forces, and corporations want to control content in order to profit from it.

People seeking social change in Tunisia and Egypt relied heavily on the free and open nature of social media, and countries concerned about civil unrest–even longtime democratic countries like India and the United Kingdom–are looking for ways to curb this capacity.

The latest blow was a revelation that Kapil Sibal, India’s Minister of Telecommunication and Information, had met with several social media providers to demand that they ban certain kinds of content.

Sibal referred to the need to protect India’s “cultural ethos”–a not unreasonable position. Every society bases what can and cannot be said in various forms of communication on some cultural ethos. In the U.S., for example, it is illegal and unacceptable to post–or even own–child pornography. While I fully endorse this position (child pornography offends my “cultura; ethos”) , I am equally aware that it is based on our cultural predilections of right and wrong. Other societies will necessarily have their own.

According to Times of India:

Kapil Sibal denied he was promoting censorship but said some of the images and statements on social media risked fanning tensions in India, which has a long history of deadly religious violence. He said the firms had rebuffed earlier calls to take action.

Of course this is censorship. But every society has a right, and every representative government a responsibility, to determine what counts in the local contexts as the equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. Certainly most Indians would accept certain forms of censorship that would prevent further violence like the Ayodhya outbreaks of 1993.

So far, so good then. But Sibal’s position becomes specious when read further in the Times report and look at the actual examples of what he wants to censor:

A New York Times report on Monday that said Kapil Sibal called executives about six weeks ago and showed them a Facebook page that maligned ruling Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi and told them it was “unacceptable”. The government is very sensitive to criticism of Gandhi, whose family has dominated Indian politics since before independence from the British and has lost two prominent figures to assassination.  Officials are often keen to be seen as protectors of the family. Last year there were moves to block the English translation of a Spanish novel about Sonia Gandhi’s life.

It’s hard to see how blocking criticism of government figures is going to offend the sensibilities of the Indian people. It’s easy to see how it would interfere with democratic process and the right of the governed to criticize those who govern them.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Sibal’s proposal follows an amazingly successful anti-corruption campaign this summer that multiplied on Facebook and Twitter, drawing tens of thousands of people to street protests until the government agreed to new anti-graft laws. Many compared what was happening in India to what happened earlier this year in Tahrir Square.

India is not alone among countries mulling social media bans.

  • British Prime Minister David Cameron said earlier this year that he was considering a ban on social networking to help curb the riots that have rocked England.
  • South Korea has said it would censor some apps.
  • In Russia, dissident bloggers have found themselves under cyber attack from hackers suspiciously sympathetic to the Kremlin. Most believe the attacks are a government operation.

The aim is to reduce incidents of civil unrest against governments, or specific policies, which can disrupt social order.

Nor is the U.S. offering itself as a model for social media freedom:

  • When a shooting by a transit authority police officer provoked protests, San Francisco’s BART transit system tried to shut down mobile phone services within the system in an attempt to stymie the protests’ organizing capacities.
  • The NCAA sports organization is apparently actively encouraging universities to monitor the social media of athletic teams.
  • Sam Houston State University instituted a draft plan which would have forced anyone with a campus-related Twitter, Facebook, or other online account to give university administrators editing privileges. In the face of accusations of censorship, university officials are reconsidering the plan.

The real U.S. version of media control, of course, is not government but corporate. This year has seen a series of bills introduced in the House and Senate to allow Internet providers more leeway in content control. Under some of these proposals, a provider could prevent you from accessing Mapquest on your laptop or mobile phone, forcing you to use their own mapping program even if it costs money to use and isn’t as good, Or a provider with a political agenda could prevent you from downloading an app that connects you with the Obama campaign or a Tea Party group in your area.

The House Judiciary Committee will probably send the Stop Online Piracy Act to the House this week. If passed, this bill would force websites that carry user-generated material, such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube, to either impose stringent new restrictions or constantly monitor user activity.

Google, Facebook and other social media censor nudity and “hate speech” (a shifting cultural construction if ever there was one) and have systems in place for dealing with illegal materials through a flagging system. But it is not clear how they could meet the different cultural standards of every state in the world system.

According to the New York Times last week, Sibal, told Facebook, Google, and other Internet companies that India wants to pre-censor all content before it’s posted online — and if those companies won’t do it, that government will do it itself.

India could go the way of China. China spends hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining the world’s most sophisticated Internet censorship system, and it is far from foolproof (they successfully  censored Tahrir Square news to avoid sympathy protests, but  totally failed to anticipate the angry reaction to the high-speed rail crash this year).

It’s hard to see Indians re-electing officials who used their tax dollars in a similar endeavor.

India is now the third largest Internet user base in the world, after the U.S. and China, with 100 million Internet users–less than one tenth of the country’s population of 1.2 billion. It is the third-largest user base behind China and the United States. It is seen swelling to 300 million users in the next three years.

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