Who’s Laughing Now?

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Personal liberty is an undervalued commodity; we often do not appreciate it until we find someone has taken it away

Last Week, Freedom House, an American non-governmental agency that monitors civil liberties including the right to information, reported that India had seen the ‘most significant year-on-year’ decline in terms of internet freedom of any of the 60 countries surveyed.

Local coverage of this dismaying report, titled Freedom on the Net 2013, was limited to a few paragraphs buried in the pages of The Times of India and met with little to no public fanfare. No one marched in the capital demanding change, as crowds did after the gruesome gangrape that rocked the nation last December. Twitter did not light up with anger the way it did when Chetan Bhagat wrote his benign, but ill-advised ‘Letter from an Indian Muslim Youth’ this past June. In fact, if you didn’t actively seek the information, you might not even know this report exists.

To some extent, it is understandable that Indians have become numb to news about government censorship, despite the dangers implied by the report. Instances of censorship have become relatively commonplace here, as with the temporary ban placed upon the Viacom network’s TV channel Comedy Central India on 25 May this year. During that fiasco, it was easy to laugh at the matter. After all, the Censor Board seemed so much more easily shocked than the majority of the citizens it was appointed to serve.

The sober analysis, in a formal Censor Board document, of a bit from the show Comedy Central Presents… Stand Up Club in which a man ‘indecently refers to [his] sex organs’, or the picking apart of a gag on the hidden-camera show Popcorn TV in which a nameless exhibitionist dry humps a mannequin, come across as oddly futile endeavours in the age of online porn and reality television. The ban, which lasted only ten days, likely produced more laughs than those tepid TV shows ever could.

Freedom House’s report, however, is not such a trifle. If it is accurate—and, based on my own experiences over three years as an internet user in India, I have little reason to doubt that—its findings should inspire feelings of frustration in Indians and perhaps fear. The developments that brought on the report’s downgrade of India, catalogued between May 2012 and April 2013, included ‘hundreds of [blocked sites], supposedly targeting inflammatory content, [affecting] a wide range of pages, including some in the public interest’. Also according to the report, 11 people were arrested for their posts on social media, some of them as young as 19 years old. Three of these cases, all in Jammu & Kashmir, involved a detention of 40 days. Finally, the report alleges, India’s newly established Central Monitoring System is living up to its uncomfortably Orwellian name by accessing Google searches, emails, texts, and social media messages in the name of protecting peace.

Given the seriousness of what is presented in this report, and its implication that things are only getting worse, why has India’s public reaction to it been so subdued?

One Possible explanation is that people feel conflicted about this subject. Though they say they value personal liberty over censorship, they also acknowledge quietly that there must be limits to our freedom—as in the obvious case of child pornography. This acknowledgement allows room for many grey areas.

Take the ‘inflammatory content’ part of the report. India is currently walking a tightrope between a liberal ‘Westernised’ environment that strives for wider avenues of expression, and a more traditional society, rooted in religious notions of propriety. It is not difficult to imagine justifications for the State cracking down on what people can see on computer, television and cinema screens, citing ‘inflammatory content’—especially in the wake of a violent rape crisis that has dominated global news headlines for over half a year. Should the Government allow too much titillation and vulgarity to hit the airwaves, it runs the risk of appearing to condone the very objectification and abuse of women that threaten to degrade civil society.

The violent and often deliberately misogynistic imagery commonly found in American pornography, for example, is readily available to people in rural Uttar Pradesh, who may not have seen so much as a woman’s bare breasts before being married. This could be a volatile mix.

In 2012, I interviewed Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav for The New York Times. Researching his wife, Lok Sabha member Dimple Yadav, in preparation for the interview, I was dumbstruck by the bizarre list of recommended searches generated by Google. ‘Dimple Yadav midriff’, ‘Dimple Yadav bare midriff’ and ‘Dimple Yadav hot saree’ all appeared well in advance of ‘Dimple Yadav Uttar Pradesh’, or ‘Dimple Yadav politics’.

Mrs Yadav is not the first female politician to receive such lewd attention online, and though the image of a grown man masturbating (or at the very least drooling) over the sight of a woman’s exposed tummy is liable to elicit peals of laughter, it also points to something much more serious.

The internet users who entered those search terms may not be suited to make the sudden jump to watching submissive women being ‘consensually’ choked during acts of violent sexual intercourse. And in case you are naïve: that type of imagery is much easier to find online nowadays than photos of Dimple Yadav’s navel.

This same logic could also be applied to ‘inflammatory’ political material. Kashmir is still arguably a warzone, and anyone who has ever been to Srinagar knows that the city straddles a fine line between harmony and violence, a situation unlikely to be resolved any time soon. What if someone were to disrupt the peace with inflammatory comments that inspire others to kill? What about communal tensions in Mumbai? What if one Facebook post this Diwali were to set off a riot that left scores of innocent people dead? Wouldn’t censorship be justified in saving those lives? Wouldn’t blocking access to some artless porn video be justified if it could protect an innocent woman from having her dignity torn away by a group of thugs?

If only it were so simple. For one thing, it is difficult to know how to stop the flow of content online, and the web is a uniquely malleable world, especially in comparison with the on/off switches of television and cinema. If you block one porn site, or one political comment, another can quickly replace it.

Second, given the array of options available to users, the Government is liable to look idiotic when arbitrarily choosing how and what content to censor. One needs to look no further than February’s Comedy Central ban for evidence of this; viewers could have easily elected to watch hardcore pornography while being denied the chance to watch the silly antics on Popcorn TV. And though the word ‘beef’ is censored from television subtitles here, a devout Hindu could easily be faced with advertisements for quarter-pound hamburgers on US-hosted websites.

There is another explanation for why people are not alarmed by India’s growing problem with censorship, one that bothers me much more than the idea of an internal intellectual debate: apathy. It may well be that the average Indian citizen is entirely indifferent to such news and does not sense the danger in it. In June this year, a poll conducted by Pew Research Center revealed that over half of Americans approve of the National Security Agency (NSA), even after an article in The Guardian reported that the organisation had been engaged in large-scale data-mining operation involving the emails and text messages of common citizens. The poll may well have been something of an outlier, especially given the fact that other polls by different organisations conducted around that time demonstrated somewhat stronger concerns about domestic spying. Still, the Pew poll was indicative that a surprisingly large number of American citizens do not actually care what Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who leaked that controversial information, had to say, presumably as long as they are safe.

It would not be surprising if a similar poll were to reveal Indians as equally unmoved by interference with their lives online. Given the scale of corruption in India, from local authorities to the highest reaches of government, can anyone be blamed for ignoring yet another reason to mistrust authorities? Unfortunately, the stakes are too high for such complacency.

It is easy to forget that the internet is still in its infancy. The longer it lives, the more deeply it becomes interwoven with the health, wealth and safety of its users. It was only a decade ago that banking was conducted only at bank branches, and video conferencing was only seen in movies like Back to the Future II. We cannot know how much more of our private and public lives will be on the internet in another ten years. By applying India’s often-frivolous censorship standards of television and cinema to the web, the country’s current leadership may be opening the door for future generations of politicians to exploit these precedents in ways we cannot yet imagine.

A gif-strewn listicle on published on 26 September—‘15 Of The Most Ridiculous English Words Censored On Indian Television’—put on the web what has long been barroom conversation in this country. The list is based on a series of tweets in which users pointed out absurd replacements in the subtitles for English shows and movies for ‘censored’ words they could plainly hear. In one instance, the allegedly inflammatory word ‘sex’ was replaced with the presumably non-inflammatory word ‘gender’, resulting in Mila Kunis’ character in the 2011 sex-comedy Friends with Benefits delivering the delightfully bizarre line: “No relationships. No emotions. Just gender.”

Buzzfeed is hardly known for pushing the envelope, which helps demonstrate just how universal this type of humour really is. People find Indian censorship funny. And there are some understandable reasons for that. But as censorship on the web continues quietly to become a large-scale problem in this country, it may be the State that has the last laugh. If so, it will be at the expense of your liberty.