Moving ahead, let us forget about the country specific laws and amendments for a moment, and take a look at the bigger picture. One of the most pervasive lines of thinking is that if movies and books can be censored then so should the WWW. However, the trouble arises due to a fundamental difference between the modern web and movies. On websites like YouTube, Facebook, Google Plus, and Google Search, almost all of the content is generated by the user, whereas in traditional media the user is essentially a mute observer.
Justice Kait insisted on stringent checks. However, what he didn’t or couldn’t elaborate on was how those checks are going to be imposed. To the layman, these checks might imply something as simple as the magical filters they have seen in many a Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, computer science still has a long way to go before it can catch up with Hollywood. With todays science, creating a context aware filter with low false-positives and high hit ratio is not just mind bogglingly complex, but virtually impossible.
Highlighting the challenges that Google faces, its advocate, Mr. Kaul told the court that an online search for a word like “virgin” returns 82.30 crore search results within 0.33 seconds and the idea of blocking a word like this would deprive internet users the required information. “The queries could relate to Virgin Airlines or for that matter ‘virgin areas for inventions’”, he added.
Since automated checks are unlikely to be good enough, the only other open option is to manually pre-screen each and every piece of content before it’s allowed to appear online. Again, this is a preposterously idiotic idea that contradicts the IT Act. Let us ignore for a moment that the death of real-time web will stifle the free flow of information and essentially paralyze the web. How is anyone supposed to run a sustainable business while maintaining the manpower required to comb through the 48 hours of video uploaded every minute on YouTube and 250 million photos uploaded every day on Facebook?
Censorship is a slippery slope. As we have seen in countries like Denmark, censorship begins with an extremely narrow mandate, but is then misused for more self-serving purposes by the self-serving interests.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft and most other major internet brands already comply with the laws of the land. Both Google and Facebook have dedicated teams for monitoring take down requests filed by governments as well as users. However, expecting them to proactively screen and censor content created by users is ludicrous. Shashi Tharoor, who previously served as the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information and is currently a member of the parliament, hit the nail on its head with the following tweet.
Indeed, search engines and social networks are in many ways analogous to a cell phone carrier. Search engines merely point the user towards third-party content they might be interested in, while social networks connect users and allows them to create and distribute content.
Perhaps even more crucially, how does one define what is objectionable and what is not? Why should Google and Facebook be put in the difficult position of having to judge morality and offensiveness of a piece of content, when courts often take months and years to reach the same decision? Why should citizens be compelled to accept censorship from private organizations?
The Indian government is engaging in a misdirected power game in which one thing is certain – whatever happens, India is going to lose.