Minister Kapil Sibal seems to have passed on the burden of reigning in the “anarchist” Internet to his junior Manish Tewari. In this morning’s Hindustan Times, Tewari summons the “dark net,” the invisible spectre of criminals waiting to pounce on unsuspecting citizen, to advocate Internet policing.
“It is the responsibility of the government to keep its citizen safe, especially when it knows that certain people are using the Internet to fan violence,” he wrote, as he made his case to put in place a legal and technological way to stop the use of Internet for such activities.
Without getting all philosophical about it, let me do my bit to show how wrong this view is. The Minister wrote:
Internet, as Eric & Cohen mentioned in their seminal treatise The New Digital Age, is the largest experiment in anarchy, and I believe it has succeeded. The Internet today represents the largest ungoverned space on Earth. Never before in history have so many people from so many places had so much power at their fingertips. Every two days more digital content is created than since the dawn of civilisation until 2003.
Firstly, The New Digital Age is not a seminal treatise. The book builds on some classic, well known ideologies. As Evgeny Morozov points out in this article: The view of the Internet as “the world’s largest ungoverned space” was quite “fashionable in the 1990s,” but “its outdated in 2013.” The Internet is not an ungoverned space. In fact, Morozov argues that people on the Internet are still “hostage to the whims of governments in physical space.”
Morozov describes the book as strongly formulaic. “Schmidt and Cohen’s allegedly unprecedented new reality, in other words, remains entirely parasitic on, and derivative of, the old reality,” he writes.
Now that we have that out of thew way, moving on to the next paragraph by the Minister, which deals with the idea of freedom of expression. He expresses the inability of the so called human or analog regulations and interfaces to deal with the fast paced digital world.
“There are advocates of absolute freedom of speech and absolute privacy over the Internet but what solutions do they offer for those most likely to get hurt by this absolutism,” he asks.
We are talking about the Big brother here aren’t we? To watch and protect us all? What is this, 1969?
He then goes on to say:
There has to be no room for digital chauvinism — one person’s freedom can very rapidly translate into fright for another. The question is ‘who decides what is freedom and what is fright?’ Who intervenes and, more importantly, who protects? Are we going to become the Wild West? Cowboy country? Or continue to be an ethos of rules and norms? Given this paradigm we must pause to consider at what point does a personal ‘tweet’ (essentially a digital freedom of expression) turn into a ‘mass broadcast’ — a telecommunications business, in effect — one that should certainly be amenable to certain standards of accountability.
May I present to you, dear Minister, what is called A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. John Perry Barlow wrote about the world of Internet in the declaration in 1996:
You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.
And what is this about a personal Tweet? Twitter is just as personal as this oped. It’s a broadcasting medium, if you have followers that is. Didn’t Anthony Weiner teach you anything?
Can we agree that the rules of the physical world, on child abuse and Slander, apply to the Internet as well. What is the problem then? With anonymity you say? Really? If you set aside criminal activities like hacking, how many real crimes have taken place on the Internet? Who has typed who to death? Why don’t we leave the scaremongering to security vendors?
That you aren’t able to keep pace with the digital world you say? Lets take the case of the physical world. Are you able to keep track of the physical world? Why are there so many cases pending in courts? How about applying some technology there?
Asking for technological solutions that can continuously monitor the Internet to keep its citizen safe is proactive policing. Why don’t we get proactive in the physical world first?