In the most brazen attack on civil liberties since 1975, our telecom minister Kapil Sibal has moved to try and remove content from social networks that he does not like. While it can be couched in sweet words, censorship by any other name still tastes just as bitter.

The most frustrating aspect of this entire charade, however, has been the role of the learned and the so-called intellectuals, who claim they support free speech, but… The qualifying ‘but’ is symptomatic of the epidemic that has taken hold of our entire society. In stead of matching wits in debate, in stead of taking the insults on the chin and moving on, suddenly we have turned into an oversensitive teenager, who is ready to give up her own identity for validation from her peers.

Please bear in mind that there are no qualifiers attached to this most basic right of ours. There are no responsibilities associated with free speech. It is a RIGHT and not a privilege, because there can never be any responsibilities attached, or limitations imposed upon this.

One of the worst arguments in support of censorship is, “But, you wouldn’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.” This argument is fallacious and central to oppose any form of censorship. Putting aside the terrible context in which this argument was made ( explained  by Christopher Hitchens), there is no guardian in the world deserving of being placed on the pedestal and capable of judging if there was a fire justly. However, try shouting ‘fire’ the next time you are in a theatre and you would soon realize that being a crowded place that it is, there are numerous others around you who can verify and validate your statements and accordingly take necessary actions. This self-regulation is central to free-speech. You say what you want without any fear of repercussions and I will refute or support your views with my own.

There is then, a second tier of support for control in favour of disclosing identities online before any participation. This support stems from conflation of the space you occupy online with your own backyard. In your own backyard, you are free to impose restrictions on who enters and who does not, but the same can not be said of a public space- as that amounts to discrimination. If disclosure of identities is your preference, by all means do so, but do not try to impose it on the others. For all the alarm about proliferation of abuse and noise online, please refer to  Pareto’s principle

The reason why anonymity has to be preserved is the same as to why we have a “secret ballot” and not an open vote. As Asch’s conformity experiments have shown, being a deviant takes considerable courage. To avoid ‘groupthink’ that is lethal to any intellectual progress, we need to preserve the right to remain anonymous as long as it does not impose up on the rights of the others. At the same time, it is important to realize that anonymity isn’t a bulwark against illegal activities and violence as anyone on the Internet can ultimately be traced given ‘probable cause for suspicion’; and therefore anonymity need not be feared.

As opposed to television airtime or newspaper columnspace that can be bought, popularity online cannot be as most of us go online only to satisfy our social needs or needs for self-actualization. Our esteemed minister seems to have woken up to this fact, and I believe he fears it. Even though we stood and watched powerless as our freedom was assaulted, be it in the multiple cases of book bans, censure of artists and speakers, I urge everyone, irrespective of ideology or political leaning, to make this stand here – “this far, but no further”. We will not let this precious freedom of ours be diluted in any manner whatsoever.

Epilogue: The fact that Sibal doesn’t understand Internet is borne out by his demand to a) pre-screen content and b) do it manually, Ideas of such stupidity that, they are beneath contempt, and don’t even deserve a comment.

(Please write in to Mark Zuckerberg, protesting the compliance of facebook on this issue, write in to your local MP protesting this decision. Let your protest be heard)

 

 

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