India vs. the internet

Reuters

Protesters from the Anonymous India group of hackers wear Guy Fawkes masks as they protest against laws they say gives the government control over censorship of internet usage in Mumbai, June 9, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Why is the world’s largest democracy afraid of #Google, #Facebook and #Twitter?

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  • Indian officials are in the midst of the broadest crackdown on communications technology. They’re making a big mistake.

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  • India has banned bulk text messages and accused social media sites of not removing inflammatory posts quickly enough.

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Why is the world's largest democracy afraid of Google, Facebook and Twitter? Spurred by the flight of about 50,000 panicked citizens from cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune, Indian officials are in the midst of the country's broadest ever crackdown on communications technology. They're making a terrible mistake.

India has banned bulk text messages--allegedly responsible for rumors of impending attacks by Muslims on northeasterners living in the south--for 15 days, and blocked more than 300 websites. The government has also accused social media sites of not acting quickly enough to remove inflammatory posts and pictures that allegedly helped stoke the exodus. These include doctored or deliberately miscaptioned web pages and videos used to whip up Muslim anger in response to July riots between Bengali-speaking Muslims and local Bodo tribes in Assam, as well as earlier attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

On Monday, India's department of telecom acknowledged working with (unspecified) social networking sites to remove allegedly objectionable content. But at the same time, the department signaled its displeasure in a statement. "A lot more and quicker action is expected from them to address such a sensitive issue which concerns restoring peace, harmony, public order and national security," it declared.

Despite a clutch of earnest newspaper editorials and TV shows talking up the case for regulation, the facts suggest otherwise. Nobody has offered a shred of credible evidence that social media contributed to a single violent incident, let alone the exodus from Indian cities. (Nor has New Delhi backed its accusation that Pakistan was responsible for much of the inflammatory material in question.)

Only about 10% of India's 1.2 billion citizens use the Internet. Fewer still--50 million users or 4.1% of the population--have Facebook accounts. The French analytics firm Semiocast estimated that as of the beginning of this year India hosted 12.9 million Twitter accounts, which represents about 1% of the population. To imagine that this is a threat to public order in a country with over 900 million cell phones is risible.

To be sure, bigots on social media tend to respond to isolated incidents involving Muslims by tarring the entire community with the same brush. This is as mistaken as the politically correct alternative adopted by those who seek to maintain India's peculiar brand of secularism--where Muslims are always portrayed as victims, and never as aggressors.

Violence by a radical fringe of Muslims fed a steady diet of resentment by their leaders is another matter. In Mumbai on August 11, a few days before the northeastern exodus began from southern cities, a mob of Muslims attacked policemen and journalists to protest violence in distant Burma. Six days later, a mob in Lucknow in the north went on a similar rampage as police looked on. In both cities, ruling party politicians are widely seen as too dependent on the so-called Muslim vote to allow the police to do their jobs. In the western city of Pune, reports of attacks on students from the northeast triggered their flight.

There's a back story to the tough talk about the Internet. Since last year, Internet company executives have worried that India's government will hobble them with vaguely worded regulations that require proactive screening of content that may be "blasphemous," "insulting" or "harmful."

But should New Delhi use the events of the past week as an excuse to regulate social media, India's cherished image as a democracy that broadly adheres to Western norms of free speech will take a beating. And it may also hurt India's promising media and technology industries, where an open society gives it a natural advantage over authoritarian China.

Moreover, there's nothing to suggest that shackling Twitter and Facebook--used by a tiny proportion of mostly educated Indians--will have any appreciable impact on dampening ethnic or religious conflict. On the contrary, it may retard the emergence of a new discourse to replace the shopworn cliches of Nehruvian secularism, which seem unable to address the challenges of an angry new assertiveness among elements of India's 150-million strong Muslim community.

Firms such as Google (which owns YouTube and Orkut) and Facebook already comply with legal requests to remove objectionable content. But the fear remains that India will attempt to replace the freewheeling culture of the Internet with its own straitened discourse, particularly on sensitive matters such as religion. Since India's politicians aren't exactly known for their sense of humor about themselves, odds are that government oversight will also dampen satire and suppress critical voices. A leaked version of the block list, which includes mainstream journalists on Twitter and independent bloggers, suggests exactly that.

Social media has enriched India's discourse more than it has hurt it. Fringe elements are easily blocked or flagged, and rarely attract a following. But credible alternative voices--who offer fresh ways of looking at India's economics, foreign policy or interfaith relations--can make their case directly to a growing audience. This churn of ideas may yet produce workable solutions to the country's most fraught problems, including conflicts involving religion and ethnicity. It would be foolish of New Delhi to wreck such an incubator.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01

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