July 20, 2006

The sweet smell of ... what?

So, let's see. One morning a few days ago, many bloggers wake up to find that they cannot view their sites. Some digging later, they find that the government has actually issued instructions to internet service providers to block the overarching domain. Bloggers get mad, as they should, and band together to protest and plan their response. RTI queries, media coverage, sharing of proxy details, legal action, quiet informal questions, all that starts to happen. Some more digging later, they find that the actual government instructions were to block only a few specified sites. The ISPs chose to implement those instructions by blocking everybody. Anger against the ISPs now, with calls for them to publicly apologize and compensate bloggers for losses.

Soon enough, the government sends out signals that they have clarified their stand and that the blanket ban will soon ("within 48 hours") be lifted. A nearly audible sigh goes up, of relief and congratulations. Yes, the collective anger worked. Good news. The sites will be back on air soon.

As I write this, all we have are those signals. But even so, we have the sweet-smelling air of triumph too.

All well in god's own country? Sure enough. Except for one small detail. As I write this, the instructions to ban those few specified sites still stand.

Any anger about that? Should there be?

To my mind, of course. That's the point of all this, after all: the government's decision to shut down my access to some sites. (As, before, governments have decided to shut down my access to some books, some films, etc). The lifting of a stupid blanket ban, by itself, was never the point.

So any RTI queries, any legal action, any blogger anger, must focus, first, on getting government to explain exactly why and how it took this decision about these specific sites; second, on using that information to set up the framework that will prevent government from banning anything, and I mean anything.

It's a huge goal, and it will take some doing to get there. But as I see it, that's the one worth fighting for. That's the true test of our individual commitments to freedoms.

Anything less is failure. So let's take that sweet-smelling air with a few pinches of salt.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

This is a hard one, and I'm not sure where I stand on it. The points that are clear to me are:

1. It is technologically impossible to block anything on the Internet, even if one goes the China route. So any ban orders will hurt ordinary users but not the evildoers.

2. We, like most countries, have hate speech laws. Freedom of speech is not infinite, even in the US: for example, it does not include incitement to murder.

We are hardly the first country to try and reconcile 1 and 2. Australia, France, and many other countries have made ham-handed attempts to control the internet. The US tried to outlaw export of strong cryptography (in the name of security). None of this works.

Basically the Internet is a medium unlike anything that has ever existed in history. It offers a staggering amount of anonymity (if you're clever enough, it allows essentially complete, unbreakable anonymity) and anonymous users can post a staggering amount of warped hate speech that, if printed on paper, would be illegal in any jurisdiction. I don't blame governments for being confused about what to do.

The flip side is, though the internet allows highly secure communications, encrypted email and whatnot, we know that the 9/11 hijackers -- and many other terrorists -- used hotmail, yahoo and other wide-open accounts. The sheer mass of communication offers a sort of anonymity in itself.

wise donkey said...

perhaps rti is the solution..

sorry for goin off topic. check
Mumbai beggars worth Rs 180 crore
Its annualised and lets read it more closely, its 3 lakh beggars.
And lets do the maths for 1 day for 1 beggar .
hmmm so much for the crore.

wise donkey said...

and what an interesting caption to the pic in the article
HEY, YOU WANT SOME?: Number of beggars has rose to three lakh in 2004. (Photo: AP)

Now confused, what do i want and what am i being offered..

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I agree. But I have a hard time convincing even close and loved ones about this. They refuse to get it (their reasoning: saving and protecting lives first, freedom of expression later.)

Most are content that my life is saved, secure, my loved ones are protected, happy, I am good.. and so on.

I guess only a writer can understand the true depth of freedom, because they tread these dangers everyday that come-up against it.

gawker said...

You make a very important point. I am not in favor of banning any websites at all. But if the government does decide to ban a site, it should be a transparent, legally defensible decision. Not one that is spontaneously carried out by a government minion who decided he is not accountable to anyone else and that his actions need not be justified to the general public.

Abi said...

You aren't implying that the right to free speech is absolute, are you? As Rahul said, every country has curbs on 'free' speech and 'free' press. It's certainly worth fighting for expanding the domain of free speech, but a world totally free of obstacles to free speech?

A more achievable goal is the one proposed by Gawker. Punish the people who made these silly decisions, and change the laws to prevent such things from happening again. Also, change the law in such a way that the owners of sites with content deemed by the government to be objectionable get a chance to defend themselves. And, the government (or, the concerned babu) should also be made to defend the basis on which it determined that the site's content is objectionable.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Gawker, Abi, Rahul, Chetan, all of you, thanks. Let's say this: left to myself, I'd like to live in a world where free speech is absolute.

But I am not in such a world and I'm not likely to be anytime soon. But I think it's important to fight for that ideal, because then what you get, as some kind of compromise, is better than what you would get if you didn't fight for it. That's the spirit in which I would like to take this fight forward.

In that spirit, what Gawker says is exactly what I have in mind as a workable solution: if a Government decides to ban something (over my objections), it should be a transparent decision that is then defensible. Whose reasoning has been explained to us. This is more or less exactly what I hope to learn from my RTI query on this issue.

And I think the way to get that much is to fight for the absolute; because if we don't, we get what we have now: this arbitrary decision taken for no reason any of us can fathom, that has wide repercussions too.

Sunil said...

I would support some thing similar to Gawkers. I do not believe free speech is absolute. But if something has to be banned, the government needs to give good reasons for that (and not brush it under "national interest"), and it has to be done in a transparent and straightforward manner, with possibilities of appeal through civil courts. You cannot keep all idealists happy, because it is not an ideal world. But you cannot gag the world either.

zap said...

Absolute Free Speech? That is like absolute freedom, which implies the right to harm other people. In a society, doesn't an individuals' freedom to do or say have to stop where he starts harming people?
Why then, do u prefer absolute free speech?

Dilip D'Souza said...

zap, ah, I'm so glad you asked.

Here's my hope: when you demand absolute freedoms, you also become aware of the responsibilities that come with them. Your freedoms, which I will do my best to defend anyway, do indeed stop at the point you begin stepping on my toes. I don't see that as a contradiction, I see it as the natural consequence of aspiring for freedoms.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Yes Tejal, I've seen that news with some dismay. Not just because I've explicitly asked for file notings in my RTI query, but because file notings sometimes tell us the real story.

The fight goes on, what can I say.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Dilip, it seems to me you're a libertarian (in the traditional American sense) -- is that right? (no pun intended)

I find it an interesting philosophy, but it would only work, in principle, in America and in practice it doesn't even work there. Today's libertarians are a hopeless minority and, though normally regarded as "right wing", despise today's Republican party.

I read Lew Rockwell's website fairly regularly after stumbling on it accidentally one day. It gave me a whole new perspective on the "other" American right, the ideas of individual freedom, and aspects of the American south that I hadn't appreciated. In fact, I tend to agree with more articles (or disagree with fewer articles) there than on typical liberal sites. There's a lot of solid common sense there.

That sort of idea of individual freedom is just not there in India. You do what's expected of you, by your family, by your community, by your village. If we could make the idea of individual freedom -- in relatively minor things like choosing a profession, getting married, whatever -- more socially acceptable, we'd solve three quarters of India's problems.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Rahul, there are folks (not me) who might read this and be mortally offended by your opening question in the comment above!

Like you, I think there's a lot of sense in many libertarian ideas (thanks for the pointer to Rockwell). But whatever I feel about that, my point here is that this blog fiasco is a good opportunity to raise the issues of freedom of expression, of censorship, and so forth. I think we pay lip service to those ideas too often, and here's a chance to find out just what they mean to every one of us. When you say we need to make the idea of individual freedom "more socially acceptable", I couldn't agree more.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Well, my libertarian remark was prompted by what you wrote earlier: "when you demand absolute freedoms, you also become aware of the responsibilities that come with them."

Your awareness is unfortunately not enough, because the absolute freedoms, if given, will be given to everyone. This is my problem with the "small-government" libertarians: what about law and order? It seems to me that, in the extreme limit, libertarianism means private militias and no police -- something like Bihar. (That's probably ok with libertarians, most of them are pro-gun.) If we don't want to go to that limit, we do need a government to (a) declare what is lawful and what is not and (b) enforce that.

I guess I agree with gawker et al, that if the government is to ban anything, it should be transparent.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Rahul, I'm with you when you say "what about law and order" and the like. I believe we can't get away from having a government, from a notion of what is lawful, from having it enforced. In that sense, I also think the libertarians who ask for no government (or very small government) have their heads stuck in the mud.

But with freedoms, here's my view: the only way to guarantee my own freedom of speech -- which is what I want -- is to fight for that freedom for everyone. i.e. an absolute freedom of speech. (Thus the fight to have those 17 sites unbanned).

Because the minute I start saying "Well, in this case this should be banned", I've opened the door for my own speech to be banned, and I've lost that guarantee.

And if we fight for that freedom for everyone -- that ideal -- I think we may not necessarily get there, but we'll get to a place that's not such a bad thing: what you and Gawker etc speak of. i.e., the government taking these decisions in a completely transparent fashion, explaining to us exactly what went into them.

And the side benefit of that fight is what I meant by responsibilities. The flip side of freedoms is responsibiltiies, and the fight makes you aware of them like nothing else will.

Maybe that last is why I think this whole episode is a good thing in the end, for bloggers.

madhukar said...

Today, I am able to access not only my/other blogs - but also the previously banned sites and blogs... finally!!

Unknown Indian said...

Hi D-cubed - for once, somthing from you I agree with. Freedopm of speech must be absolute.

BTW - have you read the banned blogs? Frankly, none of them can even remotely be construed as "Hate Speech". (not in a country where the Saamna is legal or Mulayam / Mayawati / cabinet ministers from the Dravidian Parties can carry on with their rants against "Upper Caste Hindus"). And a number of them have nothing to do with India. So why this ban? Hope guys like you with the willingness to do something will follow up to get these bans revoked.