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Gujarat internet ban: Thoughts on censorship and free speech


Following the Patel protests, Gujarat has completely lifted the week long ban on mobile Internet with Surat and Ahmedabad being the last cities to resume services, reports the Indian Express. The Times of India had earlier reported that Internet services had resumed in Gandhinagar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Botad and Morbi districts on Monday.

However, the Indian Express adds that the Ahmedabad police had written to the city’s commissioner to extend the ban by a couple of more days to prevent “provocation of a riot.” The police had also lodged an FIR against unknown “anti-social elements” for sending provocative messages through social media and various mobile applications”.

Implications for free speech on the Internet 

Though the controversial Section 66A of the IT Act was struck down by the Supreme Court, MediaNama had pointed out that it may be back in a new avatar. It’s worth noting that people have been getting arrested for posting “objectionable content” on social media and have been booked under hate speech laws as evidenced by two incidents in July.

According to the Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code:

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Whoever (a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, or (b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility, . . . shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

Perhaps the hate speech laws of the IPC need to be amended so as to ensure that they are not abused by those in power. After all, ‘liking’ a post on Facebook is not the same as writing, speaking hate speech, it is merely endorsing a point of view. Since there’s no control on the flow of information on social media,  recipients cannot be held liable just for receiving information on whichever portal (mobile/desktop etc).

Hate speech laws cannot be applied to liking, writing, sharing memes etc as they are all expressions of opinion (even if they are for or against a movement, it is still an opinion) and they are murky when it comes to social media. No matter how vile or “objectionable” the content is still protected by freedom of expression.

While this might be an extreme example to give, Neo-nazi groups still exist in multiple parts of the world. In the United States,  The First Amendment  guarantees freedom of speech, which allows political organizations great latitude in expressing Nazi, racist, and anti-Semitic views. A First Amendment landmark case was National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, in which neo-Nazis threatened to march in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago. The march never took place in Skokie, but the court ruling allowed the neo-Nazis to stage a series of demonstrations in Chicago.

Other ways to maintain law and order

That being said, one cannot discount how messages on social media can spread fear and panic among people. But that did not warrant a state-wide ban on Internet services to maintain law and order. The Gujarat police needed to be smarter than this and can take a leaf out of Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria’s book who used WhatsApp and SMSes to counter communal tensions.

In January, tensions rose in Mumbai’s Lalbaug area after Traffic police stopped some youths for rash driving. Following arguments and an alleged assault on a cop, local youths joined in and the matter soon escalated. Similar to the situation in Gujarat, photographs of injured and dead people, who were disconnected from the incident, were circulated. The Mumbai police worked with telecom operators and asked them to send messages requesting people to not believe in rumours and assuring them that the city was safe.

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Disruption of services for businesses

The Indian Express also reported that businesses in Gujarat were unable to file their income tax returns for the financial year 2014-15 with the suspension of Internet services. In Vadodara, special counters had to be opened to handle the influx of tax payers.

The telecom industry in Gujarat is estimated to have suffered a loss of about Rs 4.5-5 crore per day following the security measures the Times of India reported.

Banks were hit worse as lenders suffered losses of over Rs 7000 crore as the shut down hugely impacted services such as net and mobile banking, as indicated by this Times of India report.

Image source: Flickr user Cory Doctorow

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MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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