Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On Censorship

(Okay, this is my last post on this whole blog ban thing, I promise):

Now that the government has finally acknowledged (or has it?) that it 'didn't mean' to block all of blogspot and is busy trying to shift the blame onto ISPs, we've inevitably arrived at the question of whether censorship of any sites whatsoever is justified.

From what I've seen on the blogosphere, there are two broad camps here - those who believe that all censorship is wrong, and those who feel that some things may genuinely have to be censored, in 'national interest'.

On the whole, I'm with the first camp. I remain unconvinced that the expression of opinion, any opinion, constitutes grounds for punitive action. Efforts to police opinion, have in my view, only two effects, both inimical. First, they drive differences of opinion underground, isolating those with deviant opinions from the larger stream of social thought and reducing the chances of dealing with them in an effective manner. Second, they lead to the stifling of innovation and creativity and negatively impact the richness of social dialogue. Notice also, as I argue in my earlier post, that it's a short step from policing expressed opinion to policing thought, and from there to the complete cessation of all rights and liberties.

But there is a second and less extreme point to be made against those who feel that censorship may, in some cases, be justified. The key thing to remember, I think, is that saying that some sites may need to be censored is not the same thing as saying that some officious bureaucrat sitting in his office should have the blanket power to block any site he likes without having to provide any explanation or be held accountable in any meaningful way. Censorship per se need not be inconsistent with democracy, censorship based on Gulshan Rai's personal whims certainly is.

Living in a free state does not mean that you can do or say anything you like. It does mean, however, that the onus is on the government to prove that what you're doing is harmful to society and against the nation's laws, that that contention needs to be ratified by the judiciary before action can be taken against you, and that it must be possible for citizens to hold the government accountable for their actions - which is only possible if information on censorship decisions is provided in a transparent and timely manner.

For the sake of the argument, let's assume that there are websites that are genuinely detrimental to national security / interest (though for my part I can't imagine what these would be) and that it is, in fact, feasible to ban access to them (which I'm unconvinced of). Should the DoT be able to send a confidential notice to ISPs asking them to ban the site? Absolutely not. If there is any banning to be done, the process should, at the very least:

a) Need to be approved by the judiciary
b) Involve giving the owner of the accused site the right to defend himself / herself
c) Have the provision for site owners to sue the government for wrongful censorship if it is shown that their sites were unfairly blocked
d) Have proceedings that are made freely available to the public - including public documentation of exactly what sites are to be blocked, why, who is going to block them and whether such blockage is feasible.

A system where the executive arm of the government arbitrarily decides what sites it wants to block and simply goes ahead and blocks them, without informing the general public of what they're banning and why, is unacceptable.

The point is this - if you believe (as I do not) that the government action in blocking even a handful of websites is justified, you need to do better than say - some websites may be dangerous. The mere fact that their might be websites inimical to national interest does not imply that we should blindly take everything the government tells us on trust, any more than the existence of criminals implies that the police should have the right to throw anyone they want in jail. Even if websites are to be banned, we need evidence that so drastic a step was taken only after the websites in question were given a fair trial and after due democratic process was followed.

19 comments:

DK said...

For someone who usually does such a good job of dissecting issues, you missed quite a few points.

Anyway, first, I am in the second camp of the people you mentioned in your post. I do beleive that some kind of censorship is needed (the usual question of who guards the guards, and who decides what to block can be discussed later. In fact I would love to see a post from you giving a shot at a solution. You have a gift with putting thoughts to words that I could possibly never match)

In your post you say that when someone censors a website, then they should make public the information. Doesn't this beat the whole purpose of censoring a website ? All it would do is draw attention to the website, hardly what censors want.

Moreover, I do understand that people need to make their own opinions and vice versa. But there are so many people who just cannot do that. It does not matter whether they are educated or not. All they need is some statistics, and a bent towards a cause, and sooner than you know it, they will beleive anything their "trusted" source feeds them. And then after a point of time truth no longer matters.
What you mention would be true in an ideal world, but it would just not work in a flawed world like ours. You surely are practical enough to understand that.
For the good guys to be effective, they have to use some methods which might not be correct. But again we have to beleive that the end justifies the means.

The Black Mamba said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
km said...

Sigh. It's the damned Ghost of Sanjay Gandhi walking again.

Whatever it is the Sarkar fears, I am pretty sure it existed at least a few years before the invention of Internet, Blogs and Electricity.

Supremus said...

I would tend to agree with dk above. How would you react if someone put up a website with the sole intention of name calling you, your writing, everyone you know, your folks and such? How long would you think of it as "free expression" on internet before giving up and complaining to Cyber police (if there are) and try to get that site down?

I dont think it is as simple as you want it to be. Even blogger has a "Flag" button to all blogs - technically they can flag blogs if they wanted to - what would u call it if not censorship?

Suyog

confused said...

Dk, Supremus,

The FLAG button does not result in your site being shut down infact blogger has a policy of never taking down any site unless and until it is indirect conflict with US laws for example by hosting child pornography.

DK, also in a free market like an internet, there are multiple sources of information, if something I tell is bullcrap, there would be plenty of resources around which would help you find out exactly that. The danger you allude to would exist only if there are limited sources of information available.

Flastaff,

Firmly in the first camp. :)

Heh Heh said...

I mostly agree with the bit about expression of opinion never constituting grounds for punitive action. However, there is a difference between expression of opinion and expression of intent to harm. The former is a right, the latter is a violation of someone else's right to a peaceful existence, especially in a world where some threats are credible. There is a thin line dividing the two, and it is a line that all freedom loving people should be aware of. I'm not sure if it is the *government* that should be doing the censorship (and I agree, unilateral actions by the Executive are undesireable). But I am reasonably sure that societies need to find mechanisms by which the expression of intent to harm is discouraged, whether you call it censorship or not.

scarecrow said...

well the process given by falstaff abt if there is some banning to be done is perfectly ok with me but it just that talkin abt a process like that means that "some things may have to be censored"
The censorship on blogs is post-censorship(i.e it can be imposed after sth's published, unlike movies, may be cos its just impossible to pre-censor them).

Its just that there should be some well defined laws and a proper procedure taking care of democracy should be there. Not that anybody sitting up thr is able to ban anything on his own without being answerable to anyone.
so first camp or 2nd, its just that whatever that's happening is wrong and i totally oppose it.

Swathi said...

the average blog-reader might be an office-goer, a college student or a housewife (assuming my demographics is right).I doubt if these people would be so much influenced by merely reading a few words on a blog.It might be possible if they were already harbouring such thoughts but the idea of them turning totally against their country is very remote.Hence i see no justification in banning even a few sites.Hence 'am in Camp1 for sure.

Falstaff said...

dk:

a) The people are stupid and need to be protected argument

First, notice that that's fairly inconsistent with democracy to start with - if we believe that people are stupid and can't be trusted to form their own judgements we certainly don't want them deciding who gets to be in power, do we? Not surprisingly, the 'people don't know what's good for them' argument invariably leads to the establishment of a police state of some sort.

Second, I'm unconvinced about minorities being misled. It's certainly possible for minorities to hold extreme views, but it's my belief that that's more likely to happen when these minorities are isolated from the larger social discussion and those who prey upon them are able to feed them propaganda without fear of contradiction. Which is why I think it's important to make these points of view public.

Which brings me to the point about not making the information public. The reason we need to have it public is that otherwise we have no way of knowing whether the government is banning sites that are 'harmful' to that national interest or are simply critical of them. Let's say some government official reads my post attacking reservations and decides that I'm trying to destabilise the country. If the information on what's blocked in never made public how would you ever tell whether they were telling the truth or not.

Let me put it this way. Let's say there are two kinds of things the government could end up blocking - sites that are genuinely harmful to national interest in some way (Type 1) and sites that make points that the government is uncomfortable with (Type 2). The problem is, as long as what is blocked is confidential, we have no way of distinguishing what is Type 1 and what is Type 2. And that's not just a problem because Type 2 sites get blocked, making the government less accountable. It's also a problem because now Type 1 sites can claim to be Type 2 sites - anyone who's site gets blocked, even if he was spreading communal propaganda can say that his site was blocked by the government because it was bringing to light truths that the government didn't want to hear. That actually increases a Type 1 site owners ability to influence.

By contrast, if the information is made public, we have much more data to make a call on Type 1 and Type 2 blogs. Sure, it will draw attention to the website - but it won't draw blind, fawning attention, it'll draw critical attention. If I hadn't seen the site before, I won't just see the site itself - I'll see the criticisms of the site in the press or on Television, I'll see the government's rebuttal of that site, I'll get better information about factual inaccuracies in what the site is saying and arguments as to why its assertions are not valid. I might find out who is behind the site and what their agenda really is. It's very hard to maintain propaganda in full public gaze.

Yes, some people will still continue to believe what the site is saying. But these are people who've already made their minds up about an issue and no amount of censorship is going to change that. If our concern is that websites may be able to poison the minds of others, then bringing them out into the open and attacking them in public is the only way to do it. You can't suppress ideas, you can refute them. In that sense, making the attack against the site public may actually be better than keeping it private. Not only does a publicly achieved block keep the site from influencing people in the future, it also may lessen the harmful influence to people who've already seen the site, where a confidential block will only serve to convince them that they were right all along and the government is trying to hide it from them.

Bottomline: a) I believe in the importance of surfacing opinions in order to fight them b) I believe that we are better off living in a world where getting people to do what you want requires you to go to the trouble of manipulating / influencing them, rather than a world where some people (the government) get to supercede our choices and order us around.

km: Yes, and will survive blog bans and power cuts.

Supremus: Heard of the expression "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"? As I've said on this blog before, I think name calling is best ignored. Feeling insulted because someone calls you a name is fairly pointless - if they have a valid criticism to make, that's worth responding to, but if they're just calling you names on their site then I'd say just ignore them and eventually they'll lose interest. I certainly wouldn't want to live in a world where saying something that can be construed as an insult against someone would be cause enough to ban a website.

That said, as heh heh points out, it is possible to go beyond mere name calling and intend someone more serious harm. In which case, yes, you may want to take action against the person. But notice that there's no reason why that action has to involve the government confidentially issuing orders to the ISPs to block the offending site. Something very similar to the usual process for slander / libel could easily be followed - you lodge an appeal, the executive arm investigates, a charge is brought against the website in court, if the charge stands, the website is shut down (and possibly, its owner punished). There's certainly no reason why due process couldn't be followed.

confused: Yes, I thought you might be. Thanks. As you can see from the points above I more or less agree. In fact, to the point about multiple sources of information - notice that the only way the assumption of adequate public information from multiple sources goes away is if we censor websites.

heh heh: yes, it is a thin line, isn't it. On the whole I don't disagree, though I'm having trouble imagining what the expression of intention to harm would look like - or rather, what the expression of intention to harm would look like that wouldn't be actionable through other laws. At any rate, my key point here, which you agree with, is that precisely because there's that fine line, we need a well thought out, accountable process.

seabiscuit: Thanks

swathi: Thanks. Though notice that for dk's point, influencing even a small proportion of readers would be good enough. The argument, I think, is not that they can't be influenced at all, but that if they're susceptible to such influence then the only way (if at all) to protect them from it is to fight the idea / opinion they're being influenced by and that's much easier to do if the people trying to influence them aren't forced underground by ham-handed government blocking, before we've had the chance to expose these people to contrary views.

Anonymous said...

Censorship has been around for centuries, especially around times of conflict. If you think we are in a war, then its essential to deny the enemy, space to carry out his propoganda.

So I guess the first question to ask or answer is, if we are in a war, and if yes, with whom ?

If we are, then whats wrong in shutting down sites that are propoganda sites of the enemy ?

Many sites, bulletin boards play an essential role in the conduct of this war, motivating foot soldiers, proving directions, planting disinformation etc.

As a thought experiment, would you be in favor of a television station that runs videos of Russian/Indian/American soldiers being beheaded by Jehadis, in a way that glorifies the Jehadis, so as to motivate people towards embracing the "glories of Jehad" ?

If your answer is yes, then at least you are consistent in your opposition to censorship. If no, then how are websites different from television stations - both a medium of communication ?

Sudeep

Falstaff said...

Sudeep: Read the post. What's wrong is that we have no way of knowing what websites have been blocked. What's wrong is that we have no way of knowing whether the website featured 'terrorists' or featured someone who questioned the government's stand on public policy. What's wrong is that the government could block any website tomorrow and we would have no way to appeal that. What's wrong is that we have no way of holding the government accountable for what they block, no way of checking that they're actually blocking terrorist sites. What's wrong is that we don't know who's deciding who is a terrorist and who is not or why we should trust that person's judgement. What's wrong is that we can't even find out if the government meant for the site to be blocked or it just happened accidentally. What's wrong is that we, as citizens can do almost nothing to stop this.

Oh, and what's wrong is that by blocking these terrorist's sites we've made it impossible for other people to see what they're saying and argue against them. What's wrong is that public debate on the points they're making is no longer possible, which makes it easier, not harder for them to recruit people. What's wrong is that the people who've already been influenced by whatever these sites are saying will now never get the opportunity to hear a contrary point of view, because no one's going to write up a contrary point of view because no one knows that the original argument was. What's wrong is that we no longer have the right to judge for ourself whether their arguments had any value or not. What's wrong is that we've just given them the opportunity to say - look, the government doesn't want you to hear this because it's true - and made sure that more people will believe them, because if they were saying something stupid and nonsensical why would the government have been worried? What's wrong is that we've lost the opportunity to identify these people and understand their arguments so that we're better equipped to take them on. What's wrong is that they'll simply find some other way of getting their message across and by the time we find out what that new way is it'll be too late. What's wrong is that the government is apparently stupid enough to think that if you block an idea it simply goes away.

Oh, and notice I haven't even started arguing for right to freedom of expression yet. Or talking about the utter infeasability of such bans and how they won't make any difference to those who are truly determined to get this information.

No, we are not at war. We are trying to fight a group of violent criminals who operate through disinformation, and blocking the pathways of public communication is only going to help them.

And yes, I would be in favour of letting that TV channel operate. I would be in favour of making sure that channel is seen by as many people as possible so that they can all appreciate the horror of what we're trying to deal with. I would also be in favour of taking every soldier they kill on that channel and airing a one hour documentary about his / her life and family to show that these were real people and that the claims that the jehadis are making are entirely hollow. I would also put any and all damaging information I have about any jehadis featured on this hypothetical channel of yours (assuming I had some) out in public - making the point that they're not selfless martyrs, but hardened criminals who just like hurting people.

Anonymous said...

@falstall,

I can read, Thank you.

If you tone down the rhetoric, it will be clear that many of the "whats wrong with.." have already been addressed. For e.g.

>> What's wrong is that the government could block any website tomorrow and we would have no way to appeal that.

But an "appeal" happened, media raised a stink, and appropriate action (unblocking of general sites took place).

The original post posited a question about whether somethings genuinely needed to be censored, I posted my comments in response to that question.

>> No, we are not at war. We are trying to fight a group of violent criminals who operate through disinformation, and blocking the pathways of public communication is only going to help them. And yes, I would be in favour of letting that TV channel operate.

A lot of people will differ from your characterization of Jehadis as mere violent criminals, but let that pass. What pathways of public communication were blocked if a few jehadi sites were taken down ? Lets be clear here, one of the reasons Jehadi fervor has spread so fast in modern times is because of effective use of propoganda using the internet and other such information tech. If this propoganda could be stopped or atleast hindered, it would be a shot in the arm for the countries at the receiving end of this hatred.

As such, this censorship is an act of maitaining public safety and is completely justified.

I am all for appeals and due process and right to information and free speech. But the internet should not become a handy tool for those who wish to destroy non-muslims nations.

Sudeep

Falstaff said...

Sudeep: One, it's falstaff, not falstall.

Two, so according to you good government is where the government violates every principle of democracy and the only way to take action against them is by raising a hue and cry against them.

Notice that we still don't know why the 17 sites were blocked. Or who blocked them. Or what other sites the government has blocked in the past.

Notice that no action has been taken on unblocking the 17 sites. It's not even being considered. On the censorship question, public 'action' achieved nothing.

If you could read, you'd have seen:

a) "The key thing to remember, I think, is that saying that some sites may need to be censored is not the same thing as saying that some officious bureaucrat sitting in his office should have the blanket power to block any site he likes without having to provide any explanation or be held accountable in any meaningful way"

And

b) "if you believe (as I do not) that the government action in blocking even a handful of websites is justified, you need to do better than say - some websites may be dangerous. The mere fact that their might be websites inimical to national interest does not imply that we should blindly take everything the government tells us on trust, any more than the existence of criminals implies that the police should have the right to throw anyone they want in jail. Even if websites are to be banned, we need evidence that so drastic a step was taken only after the websites in question were given a fair trial and after due democratic process was followed"

So no, the original post was not posited on the question of whether some things need to be censored. On the contrary, it was posited on the fact that that assertion alone was insufficient to justify this kind of censorship.

Also, just out of curiosity - would you care to explain to me where this fantasy of yours about a few Jehadi sites being taken down comes from? Perhaps you could explain to me how any of the 17 sites in question are Jehadi sites spreading disinformation and terror?

As for "I am all for appeals and due process and right to information and free speech". That's crap. If you support this kind of blind censorship then you're clearly absolutely opposed to all of the above.

Anonymous said...

@@falstaFF
Sudeep: One, it's falstaff, not falstall.

Take it easy, it was a typo :-)

>>Notice that we still don't know why the 17 sites were blocked. Or who blocked them. Or what other sites the government has blocked in the past.

Did you make an effort to find this information ? If yes, what effort ?

>> As for "I am all for appeals and due process and right to information and free speech". That's crap. If you support this kind of blind censorship then you're clearly absolutely opposed to all of the above.

Can you read ? I merely pointed out that if Jehadi sites are taken down/blocked, then I am for it, and that censorship (of the kind we saw) has been around for a very long time. I pointed out a case of say, a television station thats spewing propoganda and raised the question as to whether that should be blocked.

That is the sum total of what I said. If you want to read extra stuff into what I have written, thats your problem, not mine.

I am neither for blind censorship, nor for a blind carte blanche for enemies to carry out their propoganda.

Falstaff said...

Sudeep: I repeat - if you claim that the censorship we just saw was justified, then you are, by definition, for blind censorship. You might as well stop denying it.

Lakshmi a.k.a. Lotus Eyes said...

Excellent post, Falstaff! I agree with you that the government must not be allowed to arbitrarily censor or ban anything.
But, I still belong to camp 2. dk and Sudeep have raised many valid concerns.I wish to write something on this topic in my blog. Can I link to your post?
Thanks!

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