Is the ‘hands-off’ internet different to internet freedom?

At the invitation of Index of Censorship and the Editors Guild of India, Timothy Garton Ash joins Kirsty Hughes at a panel discussion in Delhi with Shri Ajit Balakrishnan, Shri Sunil Abraham and Ramajit Singh Chima.

India has urged social network companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove offensive material, unleashing a storm of criticism from Internet users complaining of censorship in the world’s largest democracy. (REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma)

We highlight here only some of the main points made by the Indian Speakers. Click on the link to watch the video.

Shri Sunil Abraham, Executive Director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, presents a critique of the idea of internet freedom. (12:00) Internet freedom, Abraham argues, is a term promoted by Hilary Clinton and corporations like Google, defined as ‘hands off the internet’ – which really means hands off Google. This is a technology-specific civil liberties agenda, which includes the internet but does not extend to other communication technologies such as TV. (13:00)

In the last ten years a war upon consumers ensued on part of rights holders such as the Motion Pictures Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, resulting in notices sent to and charges pressed against thousands of American youngsters. This action of censorship if one’s definition of internet freedom includes access to knowledge, Abraham explains, resulted in young Americans adopting virtual private networks and encryption wholesale. What advocacy had failed to do for years, the associations managed through these acts of censorship in no time. Something similar could be seen in India. (20:00) Abraham concludes that when the government adopts censorship, it must do it as a last resort because usually regulation of speech has the opposite effect, amplifying speech and teaching ordinary citizens tricks to avoid monitoring and regulation of speech.

Founder and CEO of, Shri Ajit Balakrishnan, raises the issues India has been facing recently, including pictures distributed via Facebook in India, and (41:00) the case of the two girls arrested over a Facebook post. (41:30) The big underlying issues, Balakrishna says, include a degree of helplessness on the part of the law makers in the nation state, who are not sure how to deal with the new situations. The nation state itself is challenged by the transnational nature of the arising issues. (43:45) The second issue concerns the information intermediary, which is the key to producing productivity and needs to be protected. (45:00) the third is phrasing challenges.

Ramanjit Sigh Chima of Google India agrees that internet freedom is not about absolute freedom but about what is appropriate. (60:00) The other question is whether something that is appropriate is also lawful and constitutional. (1:02:45) The example of a Google document posted on Twitter to find missing friends in India and within hours developed into a document with information on transit, travel, landmarks, police etc. This sharing of information, Singh Chima says, would not have been possible previously. (1:04:45) Debates about absolute freedom v what is appropriate has been going on for decades. (1:06:00) US judges said that any regulation needs to be appropriate for the medium. (1:07:00) This is held to be one of the most important regulations for the internet, because it means providers are not held responsible for the content they make available on the net unless they have an editorial role in it. (1:08:00) Singh Chima reiterates the point that this is a global debate that has been happening in many places.

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    There is turmoil, outrage and uproar in Canada today such as I have not witnessed in a very long while, on the part of the whole informed and rational intellectual community following the unanimous decision–note: unanimous decision–by the Supreme Court of Canada striking a severe blow against freedom of expression. What the seven justices of the Supreme Court did was to uphold a lower tribunal’s ruling against a cleric in Saskatchewan who printed leaflets opposing homosexuality. They claimed that it was hate speech, and that hate speech trumps freedom of expression. There was no hate involved in the opinions expressed by the cleric: his views were based on the Scriptures. The homosexual act–not homosexuals themselves–was sinful. Condemn the sin but not the sinner. Freedom of thought and of expression are two of the most precious possessions of citizens of any country that dares call itself a democracy. To put a muzzle on certain types of free speech in the name of some concept called hate speech–which is impossible to define or pinpoint–shows a serious ignorance of fundamental rights and is symptomatic of a grave moral disorder. Montaigne put it well: “The first stage in the corruption of morals is the banishing of truth.” The Supreme Court justices of Canada seem indifferent to their fate of contributing to the moral degradation of the people. The new motto of Canadian democracy seems to be: Muzzle the people! No free speech! Canadians–and all people who treasure our freedoms and who refuse to be silenced, heed these words: Each and every man and woman is a sovereign agent. We do not need government or the state or its agents to grant us our freedoms: they are our birthright. There is no power that can stay us from doing what we know to be right; there is no power that can force us to do what we will not.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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