by May 21, 2013 0 comments

Social Media: The Freedom of Speech

– Prasanto K Roy (@prasanto on Twitter) is editorial advisor at CyberMedia

“If it failed? Well. We would have started again. If one revolution fails, try another.”

This was Waleed Rashed on India Internet Day, TiE’s April 26th event in Delhi. In a fireside chat (without the fire) he was answering his chat-host, CNN-IBN’s Anubha Bhonsle, on whether he was worried about protester fatigue, of the kind we’ve seen in India.

Waleed (@waleedrashed on Twitter) should know. He’s a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement that helped trigger Egypt’s part of the Arab Spring revolution. (Why April 6? That was the date Gandhi’s Dandi March ended, in 1930.)The Egypt movement drew heavily on social media, starting with a Facebook page in 2008 that grew rapidly. And also Twitter, Flickr, SMS, and other media. Both to spread information and coordinate among supporters, and to spread disinformation to the police.

And the rest is history. The movement, along with others, culminated in the Egyptian revolution of 2011, turning Cairo into a war zone for 18 days until president Mubarak was ousted.

The “Social Media Revolution” had seriously come of age.
Social media is a powerful, democratic tool, and a great equalizer, giving ordinary citizens access to celebrities and people in power, and vice versa.
But this new-age medium also reflects the internet fundamentals of “free-speech absolutism”. “Free speech is absolute, without any restrictions.”
Is there anything wrong with that?

Well, yes. In the physical world, free speech is subject to “reasonable restrictions” to guarantee the rights of others.
If you were to get out in the physical world and threaten me with death or rape if I said something you disagreed with, well, that would be a problem, right? You probably wouldn’t.

But that’s par for the course online. Hoards of trolls, some organized around political parties, many freelance, attack those whose views they don’t agree with. Women are favorite targets, but just about any celebrity is fair game. Shahrukh Khan and Rajdeep Sardesai have walked away from twitter, and many celebrities are walking away, injured by online venom spouted from anonymous handles, much of it personal, aimed at them or their relatives. This is a loss to free speech, and to a democratic platform.
Along with Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India guaranteeing the right to freedom of speech and expression, there is also 19(2), citingreasonable restrictions, to protect the nation, or other individuals’ fundamental rights.
The whole idea of a democratic platform is that all should be able to speak without fear.

There are two ways to suppress free speech. One is by the state, or by using tools such as IT Act section 66A.The other is far more rampant, and arguably, more dangerous, because it can be, perversely, disguised as free speech itself: the attack on an individual who expresses his views, by organized, abusive swarms, often threatening death or rape.
At present, the political right wing is the most prominent, active and visible in this space, with the rare case of other political or religious groups being abusively active. But they’re getting there.
We need controls just sufficient so that the right to free speech of all individuals, including celebrities and politicians, is protected.
Social media is a powerful platform, but with power comes responsibility. If free speech gets so out of hand that it affects the freedom of others, it becomes like the Ebola virus, so virulent that it kills its own host.

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