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An ombudsman for Internet content in India? No way

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In the Hindustan Times, apart from a quote from Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad saying that “We are not a control-freak government and strongly object to the word Talibanisation”, there’s a quote from an unnamed communications ministry official saying that there could be an ombudsman for the Internet, to “hold discussions with parents’ associations, NGOs, journalists and other stakeholders on the issue”.

Lets get a few things straight here:

1. This is the same telecom minister, who, as the Chairman of the Cyber Regulatory Advisory Committee, on September 5th 2014, said, when it came to blocking porn, that the “larger issue of respecting cultural values of the country and sentiments of the Indian society need to be considered and all possible ways and means may have to be devised in this context.” (here, point number 10).

2. I shouldn’t need to remind you that the TRAI consultation paper on Net Neutrality had this to say: “Another major challenge is the wide circulation of obscene or pornographic videos through these apps which is very divisive in a society with strongly divergent views on moral standards and obscenity. Yet another potentially problematic area is that users of the social media websites express opinions freely without the usual social restraint.” (page 53, here)

Even if this isn’t a control-freak government, it is a control-freak country.  Read this on Scroll:
It is only Thursday and India has already imposed six bans this week

3. The government of India did not have to issue that order for blocking the list of sites which Kamlesh Vasvani had submitted to the Supreme Court of India. In fact, what it did goes contrary to the views that the Chief Justice of India, who said, as reported by HT: “Such interim orders cannot be passed by this court. Somebody can come to the court and say, ‘Look, I am an adult and how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room? It is a violation of Article 21 (right to personal liberty) of the Constitution.’ Yes, the issue is serious and some steps need to be taken… the Centre has to take a stand… let us see what stand the Centre will take”.

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The government chose to issue that order for ISPs to block porn.

4. Whenever there’s an unnamed ministry source quoted in a newspaper, it’s just someone testing the waters, to see if there is a reaction. This is, in any case, a government that tends to test the waters a lot, and then backtracks when there’s a reaction. Here’s reaction: No way.

An ombudsman for the Internet in India is essentially a censor for the Internet in India. If an ombudsman will “hold discussions with parents’ associations, NGOs, journalists and other stakeholders on the issue”, where “the issue” means “morality and obscenity” (as stated in the DoT order blocking porn), can we really leave it open to an individual’s interpretation of what is obscene and what isn’t? Given the governments lack of transparency on blocking, will we ever know what has been blocked, why, and who has decided on these blocks? Censorship, if at all, needs to be the exception. We’re talking about a country where the word ‘lesbian’ is bleeped out on TV, and the word ‘sex’ is replaced with ‘coitus’, because of someone’s bizarre sense of morality. An ombudsman will become a puppet in the hands of the political party in power, and once we go down that slippery slope of censorship, we’ll be seeing far more blank webpages than we do today.

It’s about time that we started treating adults as adults instead of governments wasting time and resources playing a nanny state to further what their selective perception of “Indian cultural values” entails. Indian society doesn’t have a unanimous agreement on what their sentiments regarding porn are. Exceptions are used to create norms, and an ombudsman only allows the government to delegate accountability for running a web filter. Individual rights and civil liberties just don’t get sufficient importance in our country, and the government needs to read what the Chief Justice of India said about personal liberty.

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