Sunday, December 25, 2011

Policing Netizens?!?!?!

I am told that during one of India’s toughest political times, when editorials were curtailed due to an Emergency, one prolific newspaper carried Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s wonderful words:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

Recently, our Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal who is also one of India’s most renowned figures in the legal fraternity, made a statement regarding policing the internet and social media. While his statements were the much heated subject of discussion in the Indian media over the course of last week, they indeed do attract one’s attention, at least for a moment or two, to look at the pros and cons of doing so, pertinently in the context of social media.

Of course as far as policing one’s parallel life on the internet goes, in my mind several issues may arise. The most prominent of these issues is the constitutionality of such policing, vis-à-vis the Freedom to Speech and Expression, guaranteed under the Constitution. Undoubtedly, as we all tweet, Facebook or share via Google+, not just do we share our lives, but these platforms have given us an opportunity to become more vocal and on several occasions, severely critical as well.

However, with the expansion of media, whereby one can “voice” one’s opinion, is the need for policing also called for? My personal opinion, which I believe is the majority opinion, is an emphatic NO. While the Constitution guarantees the Freedom to speech and expression, the same is unrestricted across the media of communication. Additionally, since Art. 19(1)(a) is a guaranteed freedom, I believe that the only action viable, if at all, would be a civil defamatory suit for libel.

Having said this, my concern runs somewhat deeper, beyond what Mr. Sibal has to say. I worry most about copyrighted content and sharing the same, particularly of videos.

If one were to consider such content, the same is being dealt with by making access to the content itself unavailable to a particular geography -just as many websites, youtube videos, online telecasts are not available to a particular ISP addressee.

However, I am unsure if the walling off content would prevent someone from “reposting” a link on an online forum. The catch here is that while a video may be unavailable in a particular geography, I may be able to access the same the moment I shift location.

On one hand, since one may consider the absence of commercial benefit to the profile hosting such content, and may advocate this use to be fair, on the other hand, the mere lack of commercial benefit shouldn’t amount to misuse. If a pay-per-view system be in place, would this form of contributory infringement come to rest? Or, since songs, et al. do speak our minds the best, more often than not, would our Freedom of Expression?!?!?

There is a new song that has become a rage amongst the Indian public, called Kolaveri di, and has had over a couple billion hits. Thanks to social media and sharing, the song has acquired the popularity that it has. Now, that was someone’s mind without fear and head held high!!!

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