On the sidelines of the Gov 2.0 conference last Friday, Communications & IT Minister Kapil Sibal passed the buck on the issue of lack of transparency in the way the Indian government blocks access to websites. Sibal told MediaNama that we should “Ask the Home Ministry, because this is a security issue.” During the Q&A session following his address on governance and social media, he had ignored our question on transparency related to the bloc, choosing instead to focus entirely on another of our questions: whether the Indian government would launch a site similar to Data.gov, making important public datasets accessible to data journalists online*.

Sibal on Social Media

Referring to online sites, Sibal said that these sites have so far been used as a transactional medium, but we need to move them into a transformational platform, for which one will need to take a mature, collaborative method. “We’ve seen the power of the medium in the last six months or so,” he said, “seeking to perform a transformational role, but in the absence of a balance. this is really the danger of sites like these. What happens in the process is that all kinds of opinion get both elicited and taken forward, without the necessary wherewithal, and there’s a great danger, because this, I believe, is a part of freedom of speech.”

“Freedom of speech,” he added, “has certain caveats. You can’t destroy a persons reputation, you can’t commit contempt of court, do things which are against national security. How do we ensure that platforms like this (Gov2.in), which is a social media platform, accept the constraints that are inherent in freedom of speech. We’ve seen it happening in our television studios, there’s no regard for defamation. You can, with one sentence, destroy the reputation of a person. Nobody waits for 10-15 years in a court of law to seek redressal on defamation when your reputation gets destroyed in an instant, when statements are made on Television. And I’m afraid that the same kind of license will would be exercised on a social media platform.”

“I don’t support governmental interference or guidelines,” Sibal said, “but there has to be a societal check. Social Media when it exercises these rights must ensure that the information, before it is put on the website I properly digested. I’m afraid that that’s not going to happen. Whereas, it’s a great platform for a positive transformational role, it is also a platform that is also subject to misuse. I want to put it on the table, that this is one of the problems that I’m concerned about as we move forward as a democracy. I believe that agendas are taken over by social groups, and they are put forward as if they’re the agendas of the nation. That’s one issue I wanted to put on the table.”

Later in his talk, he mentioned the process, and issues related to dealing with demands of immediate redressal: “Do we have the administrative machinery? We may publish a fact that is not a fact, then will we correct it? Do we have the government structure, the wherewithal, to deal with this social media platform? This is a very serious issue. What will never happen is, that you’ll set up a platform, and if the government doesn’t respond, you’ll get a media channel saying that the government is insensitive to the needs of the people. How do you respond to that? A mechanism in place is good for the purposes of information, but there should be concomonant mechanism in place to ensure that you can deal with it. Is government ready for that? I’m not too sure. I think this is a very complex issue. This is a wonderful initiative, but it is fraught with danger, because the danger lies in the fact that the systems are not in place to deal with mechanisms of this nature. And we need to be ready for that, as Government. Remember that some issues are exceptionally complex.”

Sibal also mentioned that a part of the problem is that much of Government information is still not digitized. “I don’t have the information on my website on all issues that I deal with in Government, because we’re moving from an era of paper transaction to paperless transaction. Now all my information is embedded in paper transactions since 1947, even before. So if I need an answer to a question, I have to look at paper and documents. I can’t go to the website for the answers, but the one who is asking, assumes that I have the wherewithal. Now, assuming I have information on paper, I can’t answer immediately. By the time I seek to analyse that information, it will become a national movement. There is also a danger of subversion of established institutions when you take platforms like this forward, through misinformation, and that too is a very serious issue.

Sibal, though is not against there being a constructive approach. “I love it when I get information that I’m not aware of, because it helps me decide better. A positive vehicle for me for decision making processes to improve. The reason why I’m saying this is that we must look ahead, and collaborate with the media and other pillars of democracy to make the system work, not destroy the system. Because, it’s like a tree – how many years does it take for a tree to grow? Many many years for it to bear fruit. But you can cut a tree in a day, or three seconds for a fruit to fall on the ground. You can make it fall on the ground, but there is no tree around then. You might make sure that you should nurture the tree, and give manure to the tree, and that it gets healthier. don’t pluck the fruit, and destroy the very tree that we’ve taken years over.

Sibal On Connecting India

Sibal said that the second issue he has, is that the Internet is primarily a middle class movement, available only to those who have “the power of access”, and hence not inclusive. The Indian government will, over the next 2-3 years, (hopefully) connect every village and Taluka with Fibre Optics, and then connect every home to wireless broadband so that information flows from any part of India to the home of any citizen. “You can then imagine the transformation, instead of the craftsman going to the market, the market comes to the craftsman; instead of the patient goig to the hospital, the hospital comes to the patient; in education instead of the child having to go to the university, the university comes to the child.”

However, he warned that this is going to take many years. The government is going to connect 26000 colleges in India, connect 600-700 universities, through the e-learning platform. “What does that mean? It means that any student can access the lecture in any university and earn credit for it. It will transform the educational system because students will only look to access lecturer who are good, which will increase competition within the system, because those who are not good will not be accessed. You can then actually determine renumeration of lecturers on the access of students because that’s a clear reflection of how good the teacher is. There will be a concept of meta university – you can take 8 lectures from different universities, and get a degree. This is the transformational role of a platform of this nature.”

Sibal on Data Sets Being Made Public

Responding to MediaNama’s question on government data sets being made public*, Sibal said he believes that all data, “subject to security considerations and some other considerations, should be in the public domain.” He said that they’re trying to build platforms through which data can be exchanged, so there is free flow of data throughout the country. To enable that, the form (rather, format) of data must be uniform throughout the country, so that it can flow from the district and taluka level to the central government. “It can’t happen tomorrow, but we are moving in that direction.

*Disclosure: We’d asked this question in the context of MediaNama Charts