Social Censorship in India: Much Ado About Nothing

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Editor’s note: TechCrunch contributor Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer Internet, and social networks. Shah currently works at Votizen and is based in Palo Alto; you can follow him on twitter @semil

Another year, another attack on the Internet. Lately, though, it’s not a loose collective of individual hackers sitting in dark rooms trying to wreak havoc. This time, stronger forces and vested interests are stepping into the game.

In the U.S., bills that threaten how content is shared online surfaced in Congress. Large media companies are leveraging their power to team up with some elected officials. These forces are being met with resistance courtesy of some of the most esteemed technologists the web has to offer. Whether it was MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito passionately defending the importance of open-source movements in the New York Times, or Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures openly decrying SOPA, or the founders and investors (including USV and John Lilly) of Tumblr harnessing the platform to encourage users to directly contact their elected officials in opposition to SOPA, influential technology personalities (many with roots in Mozilla) have focused attention on ensuring the web remains open for any consumer self-expression engines that come to pass.

As a democracy, the U.S. is in a privileged position to have these public debates. Some countries (like those in and around the Korean peninsula) don’t have that luxury, which is why it was curious to see a high-ranking minister in the Indian government recently make global headlines around a meeting he called with the Indian offices of the major social networking sites to discuss the monitoring. [Read TechCrunch reporter Eric Eldon’s reporting on the story, here.] At issue, according to India’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal (and as reported by the The New York Times), were messages slandering one of India’s most revered and powerful political individuals, Sonia Gandhi.

And there you have it. In a matter of a few weeks, the world’s most powerful democracy and the world’s largest democracy engaged in their own specific battles over the future of how information can be monitored and circulated online. Whereas in the U.S. the fight centers around freedom of expression (through sharing) and copyright, the suggestion made by India’s Sabil tugged at the core of self-expression itself, monitoring potentially disruptive comments generated by social media in the name of preserving the peace within an extremely diverse democratic society.

On their own, it’s likely Sibal’s statements and the corresponding kerfuffle are much ado about nothing.

India’s mainstream media is expert at drawing out inflammatory statements from persons of interest, and powerful members of the Indian government are oftentimes all too willing to supply those soundbites. In this particular case, it’s possible Ms. Gandhi, someone who is powerful and revered, expressed frustration over seeing her name slandered on social sites and enlisted Sabil to draw attention to it. Naturally, the Minister invoked some arcane laws that could be enforced, yet most recognize India is home to millions of innately expressive people who would be nearly impossible to silence.

Or, the negative comments in social media about Ms. Gandhi could be the early foments of a deep-seated, not-often-discussed fear among those with media or government power in India. What if hundreds of millions of citizens, the majority of them young, pick up smartphones (after completely skipping desktops and laptops), sign up for social services, start connecting with others and sharing their views, and begin to express frustration (either with their real names or anonymously) in a manner that amplifies exponentially, to the point where reality is distorted and the status quo is challenged? As any reader of (or contributor to) TechCrunch knows all too well, not many take the time to leave glowing comments. It’s in the comments where the status quo is challenged, and that’s why comments are important for debate and discussion.

It’s too easy to mock Sibal as clueless in making these types of statements. Let’s not forget he’s a professional politician in India and, therefore, quite savvy at this game. The Indian government isn’t going to act on these kinds of laws because the people will not allow it — especially those technology enthusiasts currently playing host to Dave McClure and his Geeks on a Plane sojourn to the Indian capital. More likely, Sibal may be using the mainstream media to send a message, a friendly reminder to technology companies headquartered outside its borders, as well as its own citizens, that the Indian government wants its brand of democracy to grow and not face resistance from within.

Ironically for India, this all highlights a great paradox it will face: A young, energetic country rising in economic power, continuing to grow in many diverse ways and developing newer technologies by the day. And in pursuit of these large markets, normal citizens will become empowered and have access to tools that make them more productive and relevant, potentially to the point where they could challenge parts of a complex Parliamentarian system that protected them for so long.

The fun part is that it’s not a matter of “if,” it’s simply just a matter of “when.”

India’s democracy has, so far, been quite remarkable at remaining intact despite the country’s extreme social, religious, and economic diversity, and there’s no reason to think it won’t adapt as the culture changes with new communication devices and channels. Setting India aside, one could look at 2011 as a potentially historic year with respect to governments and each one’s citizenry. Of course, the year began with uprisings in part of the Arab world, spanning from the Middle East to North Africa [related: a great post on human routers by Shervin Pishevar], and most recently, protesters in Russia taking to the streets to dispute elections and express frustration with its most powerful leader. Here in America, the #Occupy movement, though still largely undefined, has reached mainstream status in terms of name recognition. We don’t know what will happen to it in the next few weeks, or in 2012.

This is the nature of the time we live in, combined with the hardware and software tools we have at our disposal. Despite the reams of predictive statements you’ll read over the next few weeks, the only certainty for 2012 is that it’s likely to be as uncertain as 2011, and as a result, those with deep, wide, and entrenched interests — such as the mainstream media, or even government — could continue to see gradual shifts in the balance of power from highly-centralized system to ones that are composed of loosely coupled groups, working in concert, attempting to make the world they want to live in for themselves, no matter what stands in their way.

Photo Credit: Flickr / Dipanker Dutta