The anonymous war to free the Internet

The battle lines are being drawn between advocates of total Internet freedom and those who want restrictions on its use. On the one side is Anonymous, the worldwide group of users who want governments to stop interfering with the Internet. As far as India is concerned, they want a revocation of the ban on free video downloading sites. They have vowed to fight every attempt to control the Internet. So they have set out to register their protest by taking down the pages of government-owned institutions, starting with the MTNL.

On the Internet, where the idea of anarchy is kind of cool (and armchair activism is de rigueur), Anonymous has received a thumbs-up. I have my own misgivings about this kind of proto-anarchist ways of showing dissent and cannot understand what it will achieve. If anything, Anonymous too can be accused of taking matters in their own hands and imposing their will on users. The banning of video download sites came after a stay was filed by movie producers; why not take the battle to them?

The method employed by Wikipedia, which shut down for a day in January last, in protest against the US government’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), was far more effective in getting the point across and forced Senators and Congressmen to do a rethink on the bill. Yet, I find myself rooting for the cause Anonymous has taken up.

A bigger worry than any government action is the recent tendency of private parties to curb the Internet. Let us not forget that the Indian government was spurred into action by a case filed by a lawyer on behalf of some religious and community organisations demanding that content be censored.

And now comes the PIL of ex-BJP leader K.N. Govindacharya who runs something called the Rashtriya Samman Andolan (National Pride Crusade). His is an omnibus plaint demanding inter alia that Facebook and others be made to pay tax and also that government employees not be allowed to use Facebook from the office since that could result in compromising national security.

He also wants that users be “registered” and that these companies be penalised for allowing non-authenticated user accounts. The current online registration forms ask for name, address, email and sometimes the telephone number. His petition says that around five-six per cent of users have given fake addresses and they could be up to all kinds of mischief. He has not spelt out exactly what would be the best way to do a KYC (Know Your Customer) check — a police certificate and a letter from the local MP, along with tax returns for the last three years?

This case has gone largely unnoticed and got very little media play. The normally hyperventilating television channels have ignored it and there is hardly any debate online. To my mind, some of what is being demanded is as dangerous, if not more, than the government’s proposals to pre-screen content. This is about pre-screening the user and is an insidious way to keep a check on people.

Barring government servants from using Facebook at work is a simple security precaution of the kind several companies take; it irritates employees, but they have no option but to lump it. This does not require a PIL; any senior officer can impose this diktat. As for collecting taxes from Facebook and others, the law of the land must be applied; if they break it, they must be penalised, but otherwise left alone to do their business. One wonders what the real purpose of this petition is.

The Internet is a microcosm of the world. All sorts of people inhabit it. Content on the Internet ranges from the useful to the frivolous, from the inane to the important. The Internet entertains, informs, educates. It follows that there could be people with sinister intent with social media accounts, just as there are in the real world. But surely they are in a minority; why make everyone prove their innocence for the sake of a few mischievous or even evil people?

The anonymity offered by the Internet lulls several users into expressing themselves in a manner they wouldn’t do openly. As a writer, I often get comments on my pieces on Twitter and on the websites where my articles appear. Some praise, many condemn and a minority abuse. Some comments are downright malicious and slanderous. More often than not, those who write those comments hide behind pseudonyms. If I really wanted to, I could complain to the site or even the police, both of whom have the means to track down the mischief-makers. But I have found a good solution — ignore them.

Sure the nasty comments can hurt, but by ignoring them, you take the sting out. No doubt the person who wrote the stuff was hoping for an argument that would allow him to abuse a bit more and when s/he is ignored s/he feels disappointed. That is the best revenge.

The manner in which governments and self-proclaimed guardians of society try and curb the Internet and social media shows that they just haven’t understood the medium. They continue to think in the old way: if you can’t understand something and it looks big and menacing, find ways to control it or, better, just ban it. Mr Govindacharya’s PIL displays that kind of mindset, which wants greater control on human behaviour rather than allowing more freedom.

No one wants trouble-makers of any kind let loose on society, but sometimes that is the price one pays for liberty. These fault lines have always existed, but the Internet, because of its sheer size and reach, has scaled up the issue. The free-flowing culture it has engendered faces many threats — from governments, from corporations and from those who cannot come to terms with a changing world. These threats must be resisted. Which is why, initiatives like the Anonymous action will get wide support, because Internet users know what is at stake.

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