Sibal, look at Singapore!

January 16th, 2012

Is India trying to do what the smaller but technologically-adept Singapore has attempted at, but nominally given up: control the Internet?

Because if the campaign for “screening” content on social media websites began late last year with Kapil Sibal’s charge that images and statements could stoke instability, violence and religious hatred in the country, the recent decision of the courts to take up the matter and summon some 21 Internet companies on similar grounds raises serious questions about the extent of free expression allowed in India.

As fundamental as the freedom of expression is, this latest attempt at exercising control over the Internet also reveals the clear lack of adequate thought on part of the government, additionally having not looked into the experiences of countries like Singapore; and the judiciary’s statement that India, too, “like China” can block websites, sounds like a grim warning by a newly-appointed schoolteacher yet to truly understand the rules of the playground.

No doubt the Internet isn’t a saintly domain. It hosts, breeds and disseminates an incredibly wide cross-section of opinions, criticism, information and disinformation. And it is this unregulated, collosal nature of the Internet, and its often unpredictable reactions to events (political, social or otherwise), that makes it the incredibly powerful medium that it is.

With such unbridled power, as Singapore’s government has learnt in recent years, come new risks. In a country where the majority of print and television news outlets are state-owned and assiduously monitored, the Internet has emerged as the new medium not only for the distribution of information but also as a forum for volatile political debate.

With one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in the region, the emergence of the medium as a possible game-changer in last year’s General and Presidential Elections could easily have provoked the city-state’s authorities to firmly pull on the censorship blanket.

Instead, the government has seemingly chosen to use the Internet, and specifically social networking sites like Facebook, as a way of reaching out to the citizenry, especially many young Singaporeans who share less in common with the older generations that created a First World nation out of a tiny port-dominated territory and resultantly, are less connected to the ruling People’s Action Party.

Politicians in Singapore use Facebook, for instance, to engage with their electorate and although there is often venomous, harsh, and sometimes personal, criticism, the underlying logic is that favourable opinion can be shaped if adequate and robust information is provided to the average Internet user.

The Singapore experience also effectively negates the propagated logic about how the Internet can cause social discord, particularly between ethnic and religious groups. Despite a small population of 3.8 million citizens — with 74 per cent Chinese, 13 per cent Malay and 9.2 per cent India, and with Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism as major religions — Singapore doesn’t place the onus with Internet entities such as Google, Facebook or Twitter to filter content and maintain social stability.

Quite conversely, the overt censorship that it exercises relates mainly to pornographic content, regulated through Internet service providers, while individual sites (and not social network like Facebook, Twitter) which may risk escalating religious tensions can be and have been banned.

At the same time, individuals users responsible for posting racist comments or any statement or graphic that could incite tensions are liable to prosecuted, which probably means that, in a broad sense, while social networks are expected to maintain internal standards with regard to the content being posted, the eventual responsibility lies with individual users to temper the content they put up.

As has been already written about extensively, the Indian government’s position of asking Internet companies to regulate or screen content will require a small army of people to filter all posts, a proposition that is nearly untenable. Instead, the government could do well to look at the Singapore model, if it is indeed so uncomfortable about the negative powers of the Internet, and place the onus on the individual user, rather than the website., look at Singapore! digg:Sibal, look at Singapore! newsvine:Sibal, look at Singapore! reddit:Sibal, look at Singapore! Y!:Sibal, look at Singapore!