It isn’t just one angry Indian against Google and Facebook. Internet freedom is on trial in India! The ham-handed, state-backed censorship of Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this month grabbed headlines — ‘The Republic bows before the Mob’.
Yet, a far more serious free-speech drama was quietly playing out. It started with Vinay Rai, editor of a little-known Delhi-based Urdu daily called Akbari, filing a criminal complaint in a district court in New Delhi.
Rai had been busy scouting the internet for dirt. Surprise — he found it! On Google, Facebook, YouTube, Orkut, BlogSpot and on smaller services and blogs: Broadreader, Mylot, Zomie Time, Shyni Blog, Exbii.com, and IMC India.
And so he filed a criminal complaint against — hold your breath — Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Larry Page of Google, Donald Edward Graham, chairman of Facebook and the Washington Post, Yahoo chairman Roy J Bostock, the Indian country heads of those organizations, and other named and unnamed persons.
He did so ‘in public interest and as an affected person who believes in a secular India.’ (Oddly, he missed out Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.)
Why? ‘These accused persons knowingly well these facts that these contents and materials are most dangerous for the community and peace of the harmony,’ says Rai’s criminal complaint (language unedited), ‘but with common and malafide intention and hands under glove with each other failed to remove the same for the wrongful gain.’
In my first and only meeting with Rai on a recent prime-time show, Rai sounded placative. He wasn’t trying to get anything ‘banned’. He merely wanted removed from the internet all content that offended him.
So would he be the sole arbiter of offensive content? How would India’s jurisdiction cover all these sites in the US and Europe? Questions like these got his goat, and at one point he snapped out to a fellow panelist that he was trying to instigate riots. The show host asked him about his remarkable coincidence of timing, language and intent with those of the government, and minister Kapil Sibal: Was he their agent? No, he said. I am an agent of the People.
I had not read the complaint submitted before the district court in Delhi. I did so, two days later. The ‘agent of the people’ was being economical with the truth. Nowhere in his plaint did he seek removal of content. Instead, he outlined a conspiracy between authors and the respondents to ‘malice [sic] and defame India with intention to spread communal violence to destabilize the country with’.
His goal is modest: That Ballmer, Page, et al, be summoned, brought from across the world to the courts in Delhi, charged, prosecuted, and punished under the Indian Penal Code sections 153(A), 153(B), 292, 293, 295(A), 298,109, 500 and 120B.
Anyone remotely familiar with the internet would dismiss this as bizarre: Extremism for shock value. But the issue goes beyond that. This petitioner indeed has remarkable coincidence with the views and intent of — and thus, likely, the support of — the establishment. So even if the present complaint is unlikely to find favor with the high court, or, worst case, the Supreme Court, this could be the shape of things to come in India – an India which aspires to be China.
India cannot pick out pieces of China that it wants to be like. There is a total picture that ensures that that regime endures, including not just infrastructure and industrial progress but also a totalitarian regime, an opaque justice system, a filtered internet, and overall, blanket media censorship enforced by extreme punishment. India isn’t China, and simply cannot be.
But Communications and IT Minister Kapil Sibal may have rejoiced the order of Delhi High Court Justice Suresh Kait Jan 12, who cleared the decks for the prosecution of Facebook, Google, et al. He said those who do not remove offensive content ‘like China, we could block all such websites’.
(29.01.2012 – Prasanto K. Roy is chief editor at CyberMedia and blogs on pkr.in and twitter.com/prasanto. The views expressed in this commentary are personal)