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India’s Internet Clampdown Is No Laughing Matter

Surekha Pillai 30 Aug 2012

If the cardinal rule of crisis management is to promptly correct misinformation, the Indian government recently demonstrated a unique way of doing that by issuing orders to internet service providers to block over 300 web pages and 15 Twitter handles, to contain ‘hateful’ content that purportedly posed a threat to national security.  

The clampdown was the government’s quick fix solution to end simmering communal tensions in some parts of Assam, a North Eastern state of India, the aftermath of which included a mass exodus of North Easterners from Bangalore, fearing attacks. You can read the chronology of events here

As if the myopic vision with which the government dealt with the situation wasn’t enough, the futility of such an exercise was compounded by a comedy of errors. Not only was the Twitter block ineffective with all the ‘blocked’ users ironically using Twitter to express outrage and protest being blocked on Twitter, the ‘block list’ included people who were not responsible for any hate speech by any stretch of the imagination.

To add further insult to injury, the web pages ordered by the government to be shut down included posts meant to debunk rumours and contain the spread of misinformation. The government, providing more evidence of how serious it was about this business – so serious that it lost all sense of humour –ordered a shutdown of six parody Twitter accounts of the Prime Minister.

In the midst of all this, the Indian Minister of State for communications and information technology’s account was erroneously blocked by Twitter. Overall, the ham-handed manner in which the government handled the situation has met with a plenty criticism  as well as mockery even as the government continues to defend its actions.

While all this is partly amusing, it is no laughing matter that, not only does the government of the world’s largest democracy support militant censorship; it is also clueless as to how the Internet and social media function. At a time when it should be embracing social media, especially during crises, to share information and updates real time, the Indian government is exploring ways to curtail free speech.

It needs to realise that one cannot simply switch off the internet, that the best approach aims to manage and participate, and that this should form the strategy. Ironically, the government turned to social media a few days after the shutdown orders to issue statements after the parliamentary proceedings were disrupted.

The debate on whether social media should be regulated in India will continue to rage. The equivalent of a self-regulating body such as the Advertising Standards Council of India or the Press Council of India will not work in this case given the diverse and vast number of users. The judiciary needs to be strengthened and an effective redressal mechanism developed to promptly address all complaints and allow immediate action for approving or removing ‘objectionable’ content.

This is the time for communications professionals to not only closely follow the narrative, but also participate in the discussion, defend freedom of speech, promote transparency and encourage disclosure practices among clients. Much of how this narrative shapes will determine how the media landscape and communications practices evolve in the country.

As I conclude this piece, President Obama is on Reddit answering questions. Hopefully, our government will take note.

Surekha Pillai is a communications professional based in India. She consults with Edelman. 

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