The "free" in free speech

(This is a response to Shashi Tharoor’s article, which appeared in the Deccan Herald today. Other links of interest: the India Ink round-up of censorship in the country, and the NYT India blog post that reported Union Telecom minister Kapil Sibal’s attempt to ask for “pre-screening” of certain social media sites. All views expressed in this post are strictly personal.)

Shashi Tharoor begins by saying, “The controversy over the government’s alleged desire to censor Facebook, Twitter and other leading lights of the social media has obscured some genuine and urgent questions we need to address about free speech in our society.”

Tharoor is a writer I used to respect; his Great Indian Novel is one of the staples in my library, but his years as a diplomat and the UN haven’t made him much of a free speech advocate. He’s been notably silent on most of the urgent free speech and censorship debates of the last five years, and this video of a debate between him and Christopher Hitchens is fairly representative of his position on free speech–he advocates limitations on free speech, especially in the face of threats of violence. Tharoor has a great deal of credibility as a writer, but it should be noted that his views on censorship are not necessarily shared by most other writers and artists.

The problem arose when the New York Times reported on Monday that our Kapil Sibal, had called in senior social media executives from Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo and allegedly asked them to “prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online”.

Such a request inevitably sparked off a firestorm of Internet protest against the minister, without waiting to hear his side of the story.

Is there ever a case where a minister’s attempt to ask companies to turn censor, screening and shutting down content for offensiveness according to guidelines that are not transparent and not released to the public, would be considered acceptable democratic practice? The minister made no attempt to bring the issue up for public debate, and that is also what’s sparked widespread indignation and protest–it’s censorship through the back door. The complaint that the minister’s side of the story was not heard belies the fact that Sibal didn’t want to make his attempts to pre-screen Internet content public!

But — and free speech advocates hate that “but”! — every society recognises some sensible restraints on how free speech is exercised. Those restraints almost always relate to the collectivity; they arise when the freedom of the individual to say what he wants causes more harm to more people in society than restricting his freedom would.

This is the start of a somewhat specious argument, where Mr Tharoor ignores the fact that the Indian Constitution has already placed restrictions on free speech and expression, in Article 19 (2). These restrictions have often been debated, and should be open to debate in any democracy. The apparent reasonableness of the “harm” argument has also, in the Indian context, often been used to remove expressions of political dissent. Behind Mr Sibal’s original attempt to ask for pre-censorship, said the first news reports, was the discovery of a page that made offensive comments about Ms Sonia Gandhi.

Since societies vary in their cultural&political traditions, the boundaries vary from place to place. Free speech absolutists tend to say that freedom is a universal right that must not be abridged.

Just an aside: please note the way “free speech advocates” has changed in this paragraph to “free speech absolutists”. This also ignores the fact that most advocates of free speech have already considered, and accepted, exceptions to free speech covered under the harm principle.

Just as the commonplace practice of women taking off their bikini tops at St Tropez, Copacabana or Bondi Beach could not be replicated on the beaches of Goa, Dubai or Karachi without risking assault or arrest, so also things might be said in the former set of places that would not pass muster in the latter. It’s no use pretending such differences don’t exist. They do, and they’re the reason why free speech in, say, Sweden isn’t the same as free speech in Singapore.

Women taking off their bikini tops is equivalent to what, exactly? Expressions of dissent with the Congress party, or the kind of trolling one sees on Rediff discussion boards? If Mr Tharoor’s making the argument that certain things are “against Indian culture”, he might have chosen a less bizarre illustration. As for the comparison between free speech in Sweden and free speech in Singapore, I’m unconvinced that India should choose either the Singapore or China model of monitoring and extreme censorship as a role model for itself.

Even more, any individual with the basic literacy needed to operate a keyboard can express his or her opinion, create information, whether video or text, and communicate it immediately, without the delays necessarily wrought by editorial controls, cross-checking or even the synthesising that occurs in a “mainstream” newsroom.

Yes, but Mr Tharoor’s ignoring two major factors in his analysis of social media. One is cognitive distortion. People like him, and other celebrities on Twitter who have large and faithful followers in the lakhs, are also exposed to a far higher than average level of trolling and offensive speech than the average Internet user. Mr Tharoor’s view of social media is necessarily biased; just as he would receive more in the way of attention online than most users, he also receives a disproportionate amount of abuse.

The second is the fallacy that would place all Net users at the same level of credibility. One of the reasons why most Net users feel free to ignore a lot of the hate speech and offensiveness that occurs online is because most Net trolls have far less credibility–and reach–than mainstream Net users. It’s highly dangerous to see the Internet itself as a published screed; the Net puts into print the average gossip, useless chatter and conversation of everyone on the street. The most useful filter on the Internet remain the Ignore, Block and Report Spam buttons–none of which require government regulation.

And yet this very freedom is its own biggest threat. It means anyone can say literally anything and, inevitably, many do. Lies, distortions and calumny go into cyberspace unchallenged; hatred, pornography and slander are routinely aired. There is no fact-checking, no institutional reputation for reliability to defend.

This has been an inescapable feature of the Internet since the 1990s, so why is it a problem now? And why is the nature of the Internet itself being used as an excuse to press for government regulation of the Internet? The most effective networks (Twitter, Facebook), web encyclopaedias (Wikipaedia) and forums online do not depend on silent censorship or overt censorship to be comfortable spaces for the average user. They rely on a combination of internal moderation–Twitter is ruthless about blocking fake and spam accounts, for instance, personalised screening, where every user sets his or her privacy levels, and the group’s own, evolving standards of what is acceptable behaviour. What is acceptable on sites like Grindr, for instance, are highly sexual images; on sites like 4chan, abuse is part of the conversation; but Twitter would very quickly kick off users who attempted to recreate the ambience of those sites.

Mr Tharoor’s real problem might be something that we all struggle with–the Internet in its present avatar requires much more from users than the passive consumption of news. It requires all of us to make choices about what we want to pay attention to, and the kind of communities we want to build, and it requires users to be active, responsible participants in their consumption of news and commentary. The state has no business taking over this mediation, or dictating how sanitised everyone’s web experience should be.

Mr Sibal’s main concern was not with politics, but with scurrilous material about certain religions that could have incited retaliatory violence. People say or depict things on social media that might be bad enough in their living rooms, but are positively dangerous in a public space.

In that case, the remedy is to report these offensive pages to the social media sites concerned, and perhaps also to demand a public debate on whether this kind of hate speech should or should not be protected as part of free expression. Mr Tharoor continues to make the argument from violence–the argument that x book or y debate could potentially lead to riots or worse. This argument has been used to shut down everything from controversial histories of Shivaji, to films about lesbian love, to provocative art, to books that dare to discuss religion, in the past few decades in India. Colleagues of mine have argued elsewhere that this has led to a situation that encourages people, especially political parties, to create the threat of violence in order to shut down anything, from Rohinton Mistry to Ramanujan, that makes them uncomfortable.

In all of this, Mr Tharoor doesn’t ask either himself or his readers a simple question: why does India want to become one of the few countries to demand censorship and “pre-screening” of the Internet? What would the fallout of such censorship be? Would we start by erasing the obviously offensive–morphed pictures of the gods, hurtful, inflammatory speech–and then continue by deleting, say, fierce criticism of the government’s actions in Kashmir, or of riots that were not, astonishingly, sparked off by offensive images on the Internet such as the one in Gujarat, or of corruption in public life? Once we set a precedent–pre-screening is acceptable and the state has the right to decide what is and isn’t acceptable, where do we stop?

The free speech “absolutists” Mr Tharoor speaks of live with the downside to free speech, which means tolerating and allowing the expression of beliefs that run counter to one’s own most dearly held values. We don’t do this because we’re masochists or martyrs. We do this because the cost of comfort–of never being exposed to a world where you will experience trolling, abuse or hatred–is too high; such a world would also end by excluding dissent or debate.

It takes a longer time to enforce community standards across a social media site than it does to filter out all unpleasantness, but it is possible–and while Mr Sibal and Mr Tharoor might focus on the ugliness of the trolls, many of us have also experienced the other side of social media, as a place where people can tweet their needs in the aftermath of a bomb blast, where a blog can become a line of communication between those stuck in Bombay floods and those worrying about their safety. The Net is a place where, years ago, I met a truly frightening troll online, a man who sent threatening and poisonous messages for years; but it’s also the place where I’ve met some of the loveliest and most generous writers, journalists, thinkers and artists from across the world. It’s like real life in its swirls and eddies, in its unedited untidiness, and like real life, it is impossible to edit unless you police all of its boundaries with considerable ruthlessness.

As a man who was once one of India’s most provocative writers, Mr Tharoor should understand why we place such a high value on free speech. Even when it means putting up with the relatively tiny percentage of Net users who put their vitriol out there, hoping to be heard, but all too often speaking into silence. It is that silence, the refusal to respond or give them any space, that is far more effective in making the Net a civilised space than any attempt at government or corporate censorship would be.

Also read: From Chandni Chowk to China: Salil Tripathi

India’s Authoritarian Lapse: Salil Tripathi

Hate Speech Must Be Blocked: Kapil Sibal defends his stance.

#TheInsecureIndian: Samar Halarnkar

Open Letter to Shashi Tharoor: Gaurav Sabnis

14 comments

  1. Excellent response to Mr. Shashi Tharoor. I especially like the section that talks about how most free speech advocates were chagrined that Mr. Sibal attempted to bring about "content screening" on his own rather than opening it to public debate.What infuriates most of us is the abject authoritarian outlook of a prominent minister who feels that citizens in his country should just accept whatever he feels is right even though his decision affects the life of millions. Once again, excellent response.. level headed, very well thought out and beautifully articulated.

  2. Anonymous 2, I'm not sure what you're hinting at. Rushdie didn't come up in this particular post because it's not a history of book bans in India–it's a discussion of Tharoor's article and Net censorship.I've written about Satanic Verses here: http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/should-we-lift%3Ci%3Esatanic-verses%3Ci%3E-ban/369407/And here: http://business-standard.com/india/news/nilanjana-roymarketplaceoutrage/412636/And here: http://saliltripathi.wordpress.com/2009/07/11/the-right-to-be-offended-nilanjana-s-roy-new-delhi-june-23-2009-business-standard/And on several other occasions. I hope this helps answer your question.

  3. I'm pro-free-speech, but against libel and hate speech. There seems to have been a genuine problem in this case that the pro-free-speech advocates are ignoring: the page on Sonia Gandhi that Sibal exhibited to the Facebook execs was, I'm told, genuinely vile. I haven't seen it, but am reliably told that it was repugnant speculation on the sex lives of pretty much all the women in the Nehru-Gandhi family, from Vijayalakshmi Pandit to Priyanka Gandhi. Certainly if such a story appeared in India Today — or the News of the World — it would result in big trouble and perhaps the shuttering of that institution. But facebook makes it just as visible, and, until Sibal got upset, did not bother to remove it. Sibal's solution — that they should pre-filter — may be wrong, but it is up to Facebook, Google, et al to suggest an alternative.Actually, I regard Facebook as an active enabler for this sort of thing. Previously any idiot could put up a hateful webpage but Facebook makes it easy to go viral. Any talk of free speech is disingenuous. Facebook routinely censors such dangerous and subversive things as breast-feeding. It is also the company that tried to make Salman Rushdie call himself Ahmed. Google removed several well-known accounts (including the harmless grrlscientist) because those weren't their real names.

  4. I don't think free speech advocates are ignoring the genuine offensiveness and abusiveness of much that's available on the Net: just pointing out that the leap from saying "x is offensive" to "give the government the right to censor the Net" covers a very long distance. Facebook is not known for its commitment to privacy rights, but in the past, it has blocked pages and sites devoted to abuse. It can block those pages only when those sites are reported; Sibal moved a step further, suggesting that FB should screen content for offensiveness and not put them up in the first place. There's a big difference between registering offensiveness, and allowing the users of that community (including Sibal) to ask that it be blocked; and demanding that a social media site that is not the original content creator act as censor, which is what Sibal was asking."Any talk of free speech is disingenuous." Again, we'll have to disagree. You're making much of my point for me, though, which is that I see no reason to trust either the state or Google or FB to act as censor on my behalf, given their histories as companies. And while I'm sure Sibal was reacting out of genuine shock and dismay, he was effectively outsourcing the role of censor to FB and Google. The question remains what else would be censored, alongside the genuinely offensive and abusive, and who gets to decide? It's also specious to suggest that a FB page carries the same authority as, say, a BBC news report. The Sonia Gandhi salaciousness you mention had circulated as an email virus about a year ago, and it was repulsive; most of us deleted it without thinking twice about it. Would you be willing to argue that the fact that it circulated as an email should give the state or Google the power to sift through our emails and delete the more offensive ones?You'd probably find this interesting: Hillary Clinton's arguments against censoring the Internet. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/world/at-hague-hillary-rodham-clinton-urges-countries-not-to-restrict-internet.html

  5. Thank you for this.I especially like the following: "The Net is a place where, years ago, I met a truly frightening troll online, a man who sent threatening and poisonous messages for years; but it's also the place where I've met some of the loveliest and most generous writers, journalists, thinkers and artists from across the world. It's like real life in its swirls and eddies, in its unedited untidiness, and like real life, it is impossible to edit unless you police all of its boundaries with considerable ruthlessness."Apart from being fine sentences, that's a great point to make. Verily do we meet some extraordinary people we'd otherwise never have met.

  6. "It's like real life in its swirls and eddies, in its unedited untidiness, and like real life, it is impossible to edit unless you police all of its boundaries with considerable ruthlessness." — well, in real life if someone threatened you you'd call the police. (In fact I'd react that way to threatening e-mails too.)Just to be clear, I don't agree with Sibal's solution that Google, Facebook et al pre-censor their stuff. But I think there is a legitimate issue to be discussed. You say that page went out as email earlier — maybe I will in fact find it in my spam folder. But if you, perhaps even I, sent it out non-anonymously far and wide, we'd probably get into trouble. So does anonymity, or unimportance, excuse bad behaviour? How do we answer this without slipping into censorship? These are real questions. The Americans say "first amendment" and the result is that significant parts of the population retreat into their own echo chambers concocting their own conspiracy theories — witness the Republican primaries.Also to be clear, I don't regard facebook as "the internet". They can do what they like, really, and I won't scream "censorship". They're not a "neutral" ISP, not even a fairly neutral blog-provider — they're a very controlled and controlling environment, and with that kind of control comes (or should come) responsiblity.

  7. @ Rahul Siddharthan:Sir,I'm curious…If you, or Mr Sibal, encountered similarly "repugnant speculation on the sex lives of pretty much all the women in", let's say, the Kisku family, or the Saleem/ Thomas/ Mukherjee/ Srinivasan, or the "Montandishbigrimish" family, would you actually try and scuttle ALL DEMOCRATIC PROCEDURES and instruct Facebook to start screening such content through 'the back door'?If you say yes, then such base-less 'slandering' exists and has existed for ever, in every form of media and communication!One of the CENTRAL points of dismay and disgust for most of us is basically the HIGH-HANDED, AUTOCRATIC behaviour that Mr Sibal has portrayed by his actions.HIS 'morality' cannot be the ONLY yardstick for a decision that has a NATIONAL context!There is a subtle but very REAL difference between 'freedom' and 'licence'… the best analysis of the difference that I have come across is by an education ideologue by the name of A S Neill – he puts it simply… "your freedom ends where my freedom begins".So, for example, I am free to jump up and down the whole day – but I am NOT free do do so on YOUR HEAD – but then again, if YOU have no problems with me jumping on your head, then my MOTHER has no right to stop us from doing what we like!That, for me is 'freedom'.One of my favourites in this contex… "It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For this delicate little plan, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom"—Albert Einstein, journal.Now, when it comes to freedom of SPEECH, it is obviously a bit different from jumping on your head!As my grandmother used to tell me when I was a kid… "don't worry about the boys pulling your leg at school – just because they called you a goat you don't BECOME one, right?"MORALIZATION is, in my opinion, one of the biggest malaise of the human society; the ONLY thing it achieves is to curtail the process of individual realisations…Interestingly, the more 'power' we gain the more 'moralistic' we tend to become… maybe there's a bit of food for thought in there…

  8. In the debate with Hitchen's Tharoor categorically rejected legal censorship – favoring instead a kind of voluntary sensitivity. When Hitchess brought up the "legal" vs "social" angle, Tharoor responded by calling it a straw man.But it's no longer a straw man now is it? If I understand Tharoor's position adequately, he's supporting Sibal's move for legal limitations on what people can post online.When did this change occur and is it deliberate?

  9. Brilliant writing. Midway through, I thought you were slightly accepting of the restrictions on free speech that our govt puts us through, but realized it was just a point of view you presented.Completely agree that living with hate speech (while is more difficult) is also much better than the easier alternative which soon collapses into a rat race of intolerance.Here is a short post I wrote before Shashi tharoor's column was published: http://centreright.in/2011/12/in-defense-of-anonymity-and-free-speech/ Let me know what you think.PS: I believe that hate speech should also be protected under the gambit of free speech as 'hate' is a very subjective measure and can quickly degenerate into intolerance

  10. Thanks Nilanjana, a very good, well-considered and articulated response. I myself was inclined to give Sibal some leeway because inflammatory images or speech can sometimes set off such disproportionately dangerous responses but i think you explain very well why pre-screening, even more so when it's outsourced is undesirable to say the least.

  11. @aaditto — 1. No need to shout, I can hear you. 2. See my second comment above. 3. Given that you don't know me, your insinuation that I only care if the Nehru-Gandhis are slandered is really not worth responding to.

  12. I am surprised that "retaliatory violence" is an acceptable excuse. If someone makes an inflammatory/libelous speech, one should be accountable for that. However, that does not excuse goons in various disguises to indulge in "retaliatory violence". If the state had not abdicated its responsibility to maintain law and order and not moved to kowtowing to politicians of all hue, there would not have existed any retaliatory violence and hence no scope for using it as a valid excuse to curtail freedom of speech. The fact that retaliatory violence is a viable political strategy in India speaks in part to the failure of our governments at all levels of governance; and of us as a society that we have allowed it to become a viable strategy. That is the bigger problem.

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