afaqs!

POV: Has social media, a platform for self-expression, become a dangerous forum?

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Digital | November 22, 2012
A few days ago a couple of youngsters in Mumbai were hauled up by the police for expressing their views on Facebook. Has the very purpose of social networking sites - free speech and public display of personal opinion - been defeated in today's volatile times? afaqs! seeks some answers.

Ever since they infiltrated the layman's life, social networking sites have served as platforms where users could freely express their views on myriad issues, both flippant and sensitive. For years, people have enjoyed the endless virtual space offered by these social media platforms and have been fearlessly vocal about their opinions on various matters.

POV: Has social media, a platform for self-expression, become a dangerous forum?

In fact, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was recently quoted in a leading Indian newspaper saying, "When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as is giving people that power."

However, recent events have caused many to question the perceived verbal sanctuary that social networking websites have been deemed to offer. A few days back a couple of youngsters were arrested in Mumbai for their comments on Facebook.

In the light of this chain of events, one is compelled to wonder whether the very purpose of social networking platforms has been defeated in today's inflammatory times. Has social media, a public platform launched, in part, with the intention of facilitating self-expression, become a dangerous forum? More importantly, will the recent turn of events prompt consumers of these social media forums to watch what they say online? afaqs! throws the question at industry experts and garners different perspectives.

Pavan Duggal

Faheem Ahmed

Pavan Duggal, advocate, Supreme Court of India

The entire case has demonstrated the complete inadequacy of the Indian Cyber Law. The language and scope of provisions used under Section 66A are very wide and are capable of distinctive varied interpretations. As such, Section 66A talks about sending any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character, but the law does not give any guidance as to what is 'grossly offensive' or has 'menacing character'. Section 66A also brings up the huge conflict that it has with Article 19 of the Constitution of India that guarantees to all citizens the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression.

People need to be careful about what they publish on social media. There is no need to control one's Facebook status. However, certain restrictions have been put on online free speech. For example, online free speech does not give the license to defame. The present action happened because Section 66A provides parameters for its inherent misuse. There are tremendous loopholes under the existing law. There is a need to amend the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 in such a manner so as to ensure that provisions like Section 66A of the amended act are not used to the detriment of online free speech.

Faheem Ahmed, chief executive officer, BYT Social

Social media originated from the US, the land of free speech where anything goes. However, there are plenty of holes in the Indian law to scare social media users. Interestingly, most of the 'defamation' cases have been filed by political parties barring a south Indian singer. Social media users are going to be wary of making seemingly disparaging comments on their profiles. At the same time, I am seeing plenty of people on social media defy such threats by posting freely. Having said that, these incidents have clearly made people wary of what they say on their profiles.

Nandini Sardesai

Partha Sinha

Nandini Sardesai, sociologist

This not only challenges the nature of social networking forums but also manipulates Article 19 of the Constitution, which is Freedom of Expression. Not allowing people to express their views violates Article 19 and goes against constitutional validity. In the days ahead, some people may watch what they say on social networking sites not because they want to but because they have to; they'll do so out of fear.

Creating a fear ethos and fear psychosis amongst the public is not a charitable thing to do in a democracy. It's like a sword hanging over people's heads and it goes against individual freedom. It's like holding the country to ransom. Hope citizens proactively come together to challenge this in a court of law. Hope the vocal minority isn't overcome by the silent majority.

Partha Sinha, managing partner, BBH

I think the whole idea of 'volatile times' is being used as a diversion tactic to support a cyber law which is fundamentally draconian in nature. If one reads the law carefully, it has elements which are so open to interpretation that it can and will be used to kill any voice of dissent. Section 66A of cyber crime law which led to the arrest of the two girls actually reads '...any information...for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience...' can be penalised with a maximum of three years of imprisonment. According to this law, causing annoyance and inconvenience would be punishable and one can be arrested. So one day some political party may get 'annoyed', one day some chief minister may get 'annoyed' or another day the home minister may get 'annoyed'.

The original purpose of the law was to stop people from using the power of the web to spread hatred, ill-will or other such malice. Somewhere, the latest amendment has made the law completely ridiculous and against freedom of speech.

The funny part is, if anyone does a wall painting with the same message he cannot be arrested so easily. That really puts immense pressure on social media as a platform. Common people will have to think twice before venting their frustration on any form of internet media. It may not kill freedom of speech but it will start creating interesting vocabulary where people will be able to say things without saying them explicitly. Internet conversations have given birth to interesting words and abbreviations which are understood by only insiders. This may create another such set. It will be difficult to kill freedom of speech with some draconian cyber law. Even the lawmakers know that.

Cajetan Vaz

Cajetan Vaz, independent brand consultant

Twitter and Facebook are being equated to the print and electronic media in terms of publishing responsibility. This is the big paradigm shift which society is beginning to grapple with and the government is struggling to monitor.

While newspapers and television channels have to register and have their editors responsible under the PRB Act, self-publishing individuals like you and me have to take responsibility for every tweet and Facebook update as well as comment under Section 66A of the IT Act amended by United Progressive Alliance II in 2008. It amounts to creating fear and is intimidating to every citizen who will now have to worry that self-publishing under Twitter and Facebook can be offensive to anyone and can lead to penal action.

This does not augur well for the brand image of the world's largest democracy. It spells dictatorial law where debate and criticism are intolerable. What I fear is the extension of such thinking to other areas of free speech and expression like blogs, YouTube, SMS and even copywriting. If it is found 'offensive' to anyone, the writer can be arrested like a murderer. This does not augur well for freedom.

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