Gag Reflex

Lessons in how not to deal with online hate speech

Protests in Azad Maidan this August, which were triggered by gory and misleading images circulated online. VIVEK BENDRE / THE HINDU IMAGES
01 October, 2012

THE FIRST AMENDMENT to the Indian Constitution, passed in 1951, allows the government to impose “reasonable restrictions” on a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression, in order to protect “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.

The means to impose these “reasonable restrictions” are described in several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc). Section 298 of the IPC makes punishable words uttered “with the deliberate intent of wounding religious feelings”; section 504 addresses “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace”; section 153 makes punishable speech acts that lead or could have led to rioting; section 295A could land you in jail for three years over “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings”; section 153B permits the punishment of speech acts that question any social, religious or linguistic group’s allegiance to the Constitution of India or that such a group be denied Constitutional rights.

Similarly, several sections of the CrPc give the state power to restrict movements or actions deemed likely to disturb public order. The most commonly applied is section 144, which allows a magistrate to “direct any person to abstain from a certain act” if such orders are likely to prevent violence; the same section empowers the magistrate to disallow a citizen to enter a specified area for upto two months, with a provision for state governments to extend such bans to six months. Section 95 of the CrPc empowers state governments and police to seize “any newspaper, or book, or any document” deemed to violate the statutes of the Indian Penal Code mentioned above.

There are ample grounds to debate whether these “reasonable restrictions” on the right to free speech are indeed reasonable. And there is no dispute that they can and have been abused—often by groups who threaten violence as a way to engineer the banning of a book, the closure of an exhibition or the cancellation of a film screening. But no reasonable observer could deny that such laws are firmly in place, and that their quantity and breadth is sufficient to address any and all forms of “hate speech”.

After a violent protest by Muslim youths in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan on 11 August, and the exodus of Northeasterners from Pune and Bangalore the following week, the government blamed online hate speech and rumour-mongering. Ever since, there has been a new wave of calls for India to do something about regulating the Internet.

But as the litany of IPC and CrPc sections cited above should illustrate, there is no reason to believe we need new regulations specifically tailored to the Internet—and many reasons to think our existing statutes can be applied to online content.

Prabir Purkayastha, who runs the news website, has an interesting story to tell. In the early 1990s, on a message board on the official website of the Bharatiya Janata Party, he saw a number of inflammatory comments that he believed violated sections of the law like those mentioned above. He took printouts of the webpages, along with a complaint letter, to the commissioner of the Delhi Police.

A day later, Purkayastha said, he found the comments in question had been removed. The key to this story is that it took place years before the government enacted the Information Technology Act in 2000, and more than a decade before the IT Act was amended to include dangerously arbitrary clauses like section 66A—which stipulates a possible three years of imprisonment for posting online anything “grossly offensive” or of “menacing character”. Notably, this was the clause used by Mamata Banerjee to order the arrest of a professor on the grounds that he had forwarded an email containing a cartoon lampooning her.

The draconian powers the government has given itself in the IT (Amendment) Act, 2008, were justified in the name of preventing unrest and violence. But do recent events bear out that justification?

The violent protests in Azad Maidan were said to have been triggered by gory images featuring rows of dead bodies and people set on fire, which were misleadingly presented as photographs from a “genocide” against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. These images, which circulated widely on Facebook, had emanated from Pakistan—but while a Pakistani blogger exposed them as fakes, they travelled far and wide amongst Indian Muslims, including into the pages of Urdu newspapers. And yet the government did not question those newspapers. Similarly, it was strange for the Internet to bear most of the blame for the exodus of Northeasterners, given that it was caused largely by SMS and word-of-mouth panic; there is little evidence that the people who assembled at railway stations did so in response to anything on Twitter or Facebook.

It appeared that the government was blaming social media (and Pakistan) to divert attention from its failure to tackle a delicate internal security situation. Even so, there is little doubt that the Internet is full of hate speech, some of which could indeed have escalated the violence.

How should these cases be handled, given the speed of the medium? Consider one example: as Northeasterners were fleeing Bangalore, the fringe right-wing group Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena (BSKS) posted a claim on Facebook that Muslim clerics had issued a fatwa demanding Northeasterners leave the city. The claim was both inflammatory and false, but no government action was required to defuse it.

Saba Dewan, a Delhi-based filmmaker, asked the BSKS to produce evidence of this “fatwa”; when it could provide none, Dewan asked all her friends to report the group’s page to Facebook as hate speech; many did so, and Facebook soon removed the posts targeting Muslims. Hate speech is a violation of the terms of service of all of these websites—and all of them give users the option to report it. Thereafter, this content is considered for removal. Active social media users have seen Twitter and Facebook accounts suspended for such violations.

Spreading false rumours is the oldest trick in the book for those who seek to initiate a riot. The 1984 violence against Sikhs in Delhi was incited by the rumour that Sikhs had poisoned water tanks. But while the speed of social media induces panic over the rapid spread of information, it is in fact easier to tackle false rumours online than offline. On the Internet, as Dewan demonstrated, individuals and government officials alike have the opportunity to identify the source of the rumour and counter it in real time. Before enraged citizens take to the streets, they can see that the fatwa they believe exists has certainly not been issued—and if private citizens can play this role, correcting misinformation, there is little reason the government and police could not do so as well.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have given the Indian government a virtual hotline to flag objectionable content for removal, though the final decision rests with the individual companies. If the government asks them to remove a page critical of a politician—and there is enough evidence that such requests have been made—they are likely not to comply. But it is simply not true that these companies are shrugging off their responsibility. On the contrary, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are coming together to launch a public education campaign in India to publicise their reporting tools for a safe Internet. The effort is being coordinated by the Data Security Council of India. Instead of incorrectly blaming Internet companies for not having a mechanism to deal with hate speech, the government must actively join this effort.

What constitutes hate speech can be subjective. Anyone has the right to put across their point of view as long as they are not inciting violence and prejudice against communities they dislike. In cases where they are doing exactly that, the broad powers of the above-mentioned CrPc and IPC sections should be invoked and First Information Reports should be filed. This will provide for a due legal process and the aggrieved parties shall benefit from the right to defend themselves before a court of law. The convictions secured through a due legal process will act as a deterrent for others who think they can get away with online hate speech.

Sadly, the government wants to do everything it can to avoid a due legal process. It simply wants to be able to remove from the Internet whatever it dislikes at the click of a button, all in the name of national security. Aided by a pro-censorship media, it wants to play judge, jury and executioner for online content.

A prime example of this attitude was the government’s orders to Internet Service Providers, issued between 18 and 21 August, to block access to 295 URLs and 16 Twitter accounts. Since only Twitter can block Twitter accounts, the ISPs blocked the web addresses of the selected user profiles, but the Twitter accounts remained active, and everyone got to know of the clumsy attempt at censorship.

On the list of blocked sites are many personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, Facebook groups, pages and blogs, and these are mainly about Assam and Burma. Hindutva and Islamist hate speech have been targeted equally. Not all the selected addresses contain incendiary, violence-inciting, minority-bashing content. They include pages on Wikipedia, and on the websites of respected mainstream media organisations such as the London Telegraph, Al Jazeera and Firstpost. Why would the government block a series of news reports on the website about the arrests of Muslims in terrorism cases in Madhya Pradesh? How did a blog called “Pro Israel Bay Bloggers” cause any trouble in India? Do they really think blocking two pages on a blog called “Centre Right India” is going to stop some people from claiming that Bangladeshi immigration in Assam is going to reduce Hindus to a minority?

To understand what these blocks were trying to do, one has to look at some of the other addresses, which are searches for words and phrases like ‘Assam Riots’, ‘Northeasterners’, ‘Bodo’ on Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus. What they were trying to do can be best described as thought control: don’t let people talk about these contentious issues, the government seemed to think, and all will be fine.

The attempt at blocking these pages backfired, because the list soon leaked and everyone knew what these pages were, bringing them even more attention. The Internet is not a medium that can be tamed this way.

Among the list of blocked sites was a post by the Pakistani blogger that exposed those images of violence in Burma as fakes. When the government tries to block online hate speech by blocking a webpage that counters online hate speech, that’s a clear indication it has a long way to go before it can understand cyberculture.