Friday, December 09, 2011

The "free" in free speech

(This is a response to Shashi Tharoor's article, which appeared in the Deccan Herald today. Other links of interest: the India Ink round-up of censorship in the country, and the NYT India blog post that reported Union Telecom minister Kapil Sibal's attempt to ask for "pre-screening" of certain social media sites. All views expressed in this post are strictly personal.)

Shashi Tharoor begins by saying, "The controversy over the government’s alleged desire to censor Facebook, Twitter and other leading lights of the social media has obscured some genuine and urgent questions we need to address about free speech in our society."

Tharoor is a writer I used to respect; his Great Indian Novel is one of the staples in my library, but his years as a diplomat and the UN haven't made him much of a free speech advocate. He's been notably silent on most of the urgent free speech and censorship debates of the last five years, and this video of a debate between him and Christopher Hitchens is fairly representative of his position on free speech--he advocates limitations on free speech, especially in the face of threats of violence. Tharoor has a great deal of credibility as a writer, but it should be noted that his views on censorship are not necessarily shared by most other writers and artists.

The problem arose when the New York Times reported on Monday that our Kapil Sibal, had called in senior social media executives from Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo and allegedly asked them to “prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online”.

Such a request inevitably sparked off a firestorm of Internet protest against the minister, without waiting to hear his side of the story.


Is there ever a case where a minister's attempt to ask companies to turn censor, screening and shutting down content for offensiveness according to guidelines that are not transparent and not released to the public, would be considered acceptable democratic practice? The minister made no attempt to bring the issue up for public debate, and that is also what's sparked widespread indignation and protest--it's censorship through the back door. The complaint that the minister's side of the story was not heard belies the fact that Sibal didn't want to make his attempts to pre-screen Internet content public!

But — and free speech advocates hate that “but”! — every society recognises some sensible restraints on how free speech is exercised. Those restraints almost always relate to the collectivity; they arise when the freedom of the individual to say what he wants causes more harm to more people in society than restricting his freedom would.

This is the start of a somewhat specious argument, where Mr Tharoor ignores the fact that the Indian Constitution has already placed restrictions on free speech and expression, in Article 19 (2). These restrictions have often been debated, and should be open to debate in any democracy. The apparent reasonableness of the "harm" argument has also, in the Indian context, often been used to remove expressions of political dissent. Behind Mr Sibal's original attempt to ask for pre-censorship, said the first news reports, was the discovery of a page that made offensive comments about Ms Sonia Gandhi.

Since societies vary in their cultural&political traditions, the boundaries vary from place to place. Free speech absolutists tend to say that freedom is a universal right that must not be abridged.

Just an aside: please note the way "free speech advocates" has changed in this paragraph to "free speech absolutists". This also ignores the fact that most advocates of free speech have already considered, and accepted, exceptions to free speech covered under the harm principle.

Just as the commonplace practice of women taking off their bikini tops at St Tropez, Copacabana or Bondi Beach could not be replicated on the beaches of Goa, Dubai or Karachi without risking assault or arrest, so also things might be said in the former set of places that would not pass muster in the latter. It’s no use pretending such differences don’t exist. They do, and they’re the reason why free speech in, say, Sweden isn’t the same as free speech in Singapore.

Women taking off their bikini tops is equivalent to what, exactly? Expressions of dissent with the Congress party, or the kind of trolling one sees on Rediff discussion boards? If Mr Tharoor's making the argument that certain things are "against Indian culture", he might have chosen a less bizarre illustration. As for the comparison between free speech in Sweden and free speech in Singapore, I'm unconvinced that India should choose either the Singapore or China model of monitoring and extreme censorship as a role model for itself.

Even more, any individual with the basic literacy needed to operate a keyboard can express his or her opinion, create information, whether video or text, and communicate it immediately, without the delays necessarily wrought by editorial controls, cross-checking or even the synthesising that occurs in a “mainstream” newsroom.

Yes, but Mr Tharoor's ignoring two major factors in his analysis of social media. One is cognitive distortion. People like him, and other celebrities on Twitter who have large and faithful followers in the lakhs, are also exposed to a far higher than average level of trolling and offensive speech than the average Internet user. Mr Tharoor's view of social media is necessarily biased; just as he would receive more in the way of attention online than most users, he also receives a disproportionate amount of abuse.

The second is the fallacy that would place all Net users at the same level of credibility. One of the reasons why most Net users feel free to ignore a lot of the hate speech and offensiveness that occurs online is because most Net trolls have far less credibility--and reach--than mainstream Net users. It's highly dangerous to see the Internet itself as a published screed; the Net puts into print the average gossip, useless chatter and conversation of everyone on the street. The most useful filter on the Internet remain the Ignore, Block and Report Spam buttons--none of which require government regulation.

And yet this very freedom is its own biggest threat. It means anyone can say literally anything and, inevitably, many do. Lies, distortions and calumny go into cyberspace unchallenged; hatred, pornography and slander are routinely aired. There is no fact-checking, no institutional reputation for reliability to defend.

This has been an inescapable feature of the Internet since the 1990s, so why is it a problem now? And why is the nature of the Internet itself being used as an excuse to press for government regulation of the Internet? The most effective networks (Twitter, Facebook), web encyclopaedias (Wikipaedia) and forums online do not depend on silent censorship or overt censorship to be comfortable spaces for the average user. They rely on a combination of internal moderation--Twitter is ruthless about blocking fake and spam accounts, for instance, personalised screening, where every user sets his or her privacy levels, and the group's own, evolving standards of what is acceptable behaviour. What is acceptable on sites like Grindr, for instance, are highly sexual images; on sites like 4chan, abuse is part of the conversation; but Twitter would very quickly kick off users who attempted to recreate the ambience of those sites.

Mr Tharoor's real problem might be something that we all struggle with--the Internet in its present avatar requires much more from users than the passive consumption of news. It requires all of us to make choices about what we want to pay attention to, and the kind of communities we want to build, and it requires users to be active, responsible participants in their consumption of news and commentary. The state has no business taking over this mediation, or dictating how sanitised everyone's web experience should be.

Mr Sibal’s main concern was not with politics, but with scurrilous material about certain religions that could have incited retaliatory violence. People say or depict things on social media that might be bad enough in their living rooms, but are positively dangerous in a public space.

In that case, the remedy is to report these offensive pages to the social media sites concerned, and perhaps also to demand a public debate on whether this kind of hate speech should or should not be protected as part of free expression. Mr Tharoor continues to make the argument from violence--the argument that x book or y debate could potentially lead to riots or worse. This argument has been used to shut down everything from controversial histories of Shivaji, to films about lesbian love, to provocative art, to books that dare to discuss religion, in the past few decades in India. Colleagues of mine have argued elsewhere that this has led to a situation that encourages people, especially political parties, to create the threat of violence in order to shut down anything, from Rohinton Mistry to Ramanujan, that makes them uncomfortable.

In all of this, Mr Tharoor doesn't ask either himself or his readers a simple question: why does India want to become one of the few countries to demand censorship and "pre-screening" of the Internet? What would the fallout of such censorship be? Would we start by erasing the obviously offensive--morphed pictures of the gods, hurtful, inflammatory speech--and then continue by deleting, say, fierce criticism of the government's actions in Kashmir, or of riots that were not, astonishingly, sparked off by offensive images on the Internet such as the one in Gujarat, or of corruption in public life? Once we set a precedent--pre-screening is acceptable and the state has the right to decide what is and isn't acceptable, where do we stop?

The free speech "absolutists" Mr Tharoor speaks of live with the downside to free speech, which means tolerating and allowing the expression of beliefs that run counter to one's own most dearly held values. We don't do this because we're masochists or martyrs. We do this because the cost of comfort--of never being exposed to a world where you will experience trolling, abuse or hatred--is too high; such a world would also end by excluding dissent or debate.

It takes a longer time to enforce community standards across a social media site than it does to filter out all unpleasantness, but it is possible--and while Mr Sibal and Mr Tharoor might focus on the ugliness of the trolls, many of us have also experienced the other side of social media, as a place where people can tweet their needs in the aftermath of a bomb blast, where a blog can become a line of communication between those stuck in Bombay floods and those worrying about their safety. The Net is a place where, years ago, I met a truly frightening troll online, a man who sent threatening and poisonous messages for years; but it's also the place where I've met some of the loveliest and most generous writers, journalists, thinkers and artists from across the world. It's like real life in its swirls and eddies, in its unedited untidiness, and like real life, it is impossible to edit unless you police all of its boundaries with considerable ruthlessness.

As a man who was once one of India's most provocative writers, Mr Tharoor should understand why we place such a high value on free speech. Even when it means putting up with the relatively tiny percentage of Net users who put their vitriol out there, hoping to be heard, but all too often speaking into silence. It is that silence, the refusal to respond or give them any space, that is far more effective in making the Net a civilised space than any attempt at government or corporate censorship would be.

Also read: From Chandni Chowk to China: Salil Tripathi

India's Authoritarian Lapse: Salil Tripathi

Hate Speech Must Be Blocked: Kapil Sibal defends his stance.

#TheInsecureIndian: Samar Halarnkar

Open Letter to Shashi Tharoor: Gaurav Sabnis
 
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