In just 24 hours, in the Facebook
alumni group of St Stephen's College, Communications Minister
Kapil Sibal's ratings crashed faster than that of US President
Barack Obama or what former telecom minister A. Raja, now in
judicial custody over second generation (2G) spectrum case, ever
In a survey to pick star alumni for a big debating clash with
counterparts from the rival college across the road, Sibal was on
the top five a week ago -- among other stellar Stephanians like
Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former
federal minister Mani Shankar Aiyar or former UN diplomat Shashi
Tharoor. No longer!
As the #Idiot hash-tag topped Twitter trends, some withdrew their
votes for Sibal, and there were posts like "Chuck him across the
road" -- a scathing insult, equivalent to the Parsis'
Just a preview of the global firestorm over the next two days!
The fire wasn't from anonymous teens. Seasoned analysts blasted
Sibal. Investor Mahesh Murthy posted: "Censor this! :) ! Five of
the top 10 Twitter trends in India right now are: #IdiotKapilsibal,
#KapilSibal, #Censorship, #FreeSpeech and #FreedomOfSpeech."
All this, for just one statement from a politician not unknown for
his foot-in-mouth disease? Not quite. For, he has the power to
misuse and try to make it happen.
During the Anna Hazare movement, Sibal summoned representatives of
the social networks. In a king-and-subjects interaction, he kept
them waiting, then kept them standing in his room; gave them a
pre-emptive dressing down; and snapped: "I don't want any
anti-government stuff on your networks. Fix it." There was no room
So here's a five-point Internet 101 for the illustrious Mr. Sibal.
1. The Internet cannot be edited: Duh! In an early Dilbert strip,
the pointy-haired boss demanded that Dilbert "download" the
Internet and fax it to him. A decade down, it's not so funny any
The Internet is not traditional media. India's 1975 emergency and
the media clampdown was possible because of the linear, broadcast
nature of the old media. New media is distributed. No copy desk or
censor board can "fix" it. There is no editor to arrest. And, most
content is hosted outside India's jurisdiction.
2. User-generated content cannot be filtered: That would slow down
the global Internet to a crawl, with posts appearing after days --
even assuming so many "editors" could be hired by, say, a Facebook
or a Twitter.
Are phone operators responsible for "content" carried on their
networks -- or their CEOs arrested if someone made a terror threat
over a phone call? No, the telco is simply asked to help with the
investigation -- into who made the call.
Yes, Internet content has the permanence and public-impact
potential that a phone call does not, but equally, it lends itself
brilliantly to self-regulation.
3. Peer review works: Wikipedia is the best example. Who could
have imagined that a user-created encyclopedia could be so
objective, and comprehensive? Yes, anyone can go in and edit
anything (barring entries like "Kapil Sibal", which have been
locked due to vandalism!).
If you make an inappropriate change, someone will come in and
correct it. And so it is on Facebook or Twitter. Abusive posts
will be reported, blocked, and the individuals knocked out of the
4. Draconian controls are not necessary: In this age of global
cooperation on terror, companies cooperate. A rational request
from India to Google or Facebook to bring down offensive content
will be heard -- regardless of jurisdiction.
5. Yes, there are precedents for Internet control, but...: Such
censorship is in countries India doesn't want to be -- China,
Pakistan, Myanmar or Saudi Arabia. Pakistan became a laughing
stock when it issued a list of banned words for SMS messages.
(That list is now standard reading for anyone wanting a quick
lesson in present and future abuses that aren't in any
The big daddy of "regulation" is China, where everything is
filtered, and if you break those filters, you are charged with
treason. What a role model.
Kapil Sibal knows all this, right? So why is this bright star from
Harvard Law School and St. Stephen's college now sounding so
anachronistic in the Internet age? Is it the old "thou shalt
display higher loyalty to the royal family than the prince
If Kapil Sibal is to defend himself against the charge of
sycophancy, he is on a weak footing. There were many prior
potential triggers for tackling social media, including fanatic
religious posts, derogatory comments by Pakistan sympathisers,
Anna Hazare, and more. That he finally picked a post that targeted
Sonia Gandhi suggests that this was not out of serious, objective
concern about India's stability, security or secular fabric.
Prasanto K Roy is chief editor at technology publishers
CyberMedia, and can be reached at twitter.com/prasanto or email@example.com