On free speech and national security

Blocks, bans and censorship no longer work

This is the unedited draft of my guest column in this week’s India Today.

Let us not underestimate the importance and the challenge of maintaining public safety and national security in a diverse, heterogenous society undergoing rapid change. Over the last three decades, riding furiously on the politics of identity and the economics of entitlement, an arms race of competitive intolerance has rent Indian society. It is frequently accompanied by coercion, intimidation or violence.

Unfortunately, where one citizen’s intolerance collides with another’s right to free speech, the agents of the Indian republic cravenly side with the former. This is the context in which our police, intelligence agencies and security forces are tasked with the job of maintaining domestic peace. As important as their job is—for internal stability is the basis for growth and development—they are under-staffed, under-equipped, under-trained and inappropriately organised for the task. To an extent, therefore, it is understandable that the security establishment prefers to err on the side of caution, and seeks as much statutory leeway as possible in laws concerning free speech and civil liberties.

It is understandable, yes, but no longer acceptable. Even before large numbers of Indians acquired mobile phones and got onto the internet, our unreformed, colonial approach to policing had created a yawning gap of disaffection between police and citizen, establishment and society, the state and the individual. The information age has exacerbated this gap, creating extreme pressures on both sides. If left unchecked, such pressures could explode in many ways, most of which spell trouble for our democratic republic.

The traditional method of maintaining what is popularly known as “law and order” involves rationing information. It presumes that information is a scarce commodity like it used to be half-a-century ago. Censorship could prevent the masses from obtaining information that the authorities didn’t want them to. Books could be banned and their import restricted. Sensitive installations could be protected by preventing accurate maps from being published. Even when government documents weren’t classified, there was little chance that citizens would ever have access to them.

This is no longer tenable because information is no longer scarce. Traditional methods might still fetch tactical, short-term successes, but at the cost of creating strategic, long-term damage. Cutting off SMS services in Srinagar might put the brakes on the spread of a riot but adds another layer of grievance to an already disaffected population. In most cases it simply doesn’t work. Censorship can be circumvented inexpensively, banned books downloaded easily and many official documents accessed through the Right to Information.

That’s not all. By keeping blunt laws that were designed for ease of use by unreformed police forces, we do not create any incentives for smarter policing. Draconian laws are bad for the police. They are obviously bad for society. The disconnect they create between the two is bad for the Indian republic.

The recent arrest of the two young women in Palghar, Maharashtra under draconian provisions of the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code, and the subsequent government action against the policemen involved, demonstrates this. The only winners in that episode were the intolerant.

Instead of persisting with the increasingly counterproductive approach of rationing information, a better way would be for the government to manage its abundance. There is nothing stopping the government from putting timely, accurate information online. From traffic updates to weather, from law and order situations to authoritative updates on details of the operations of our security forces. When the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) published tweets and videos of their recent combat operation in near real-time, they ensured that their narrative prevailed over the usual confusion and misinformation that the fog-of-war creates. There are lessons here for our Home Affairs and Defence ministries.

Similarly, law enforcement authorities can keep their fingers on the zeitgeist and intervene with factual information in real time. Some are already doing this. The state police in Jammu & Kashmir have made good use of Facebook. Last month, the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters put out their version of the story even while Arvind Kejriwal was making allegations—concerning non-payment of emoluments to a NSG commando—at a press conference. This method can be used to good effect during times when there are malefactors spreading rumours online. Good information is the best way to counter bad information, obviating the need to block social media, ban websites and suspend telecom services.

Law enforcement authorities must have the powers to ensure public safety and order. However, the Policeman cannot be the arbiter of free speech. It is a mistake to ask police officers to develop the sophisticated sense to appreciate the finer nuances of what is acceptable speech. What we must do as part of a larger project of police reform is equip our law enforcement authorities with information management skills necessary to do their basic job—protecting our liberty—better.

Sunday Levity: Why Pragati was blocked

Games firewalls play

A well-wishing reader—from a South Indian city known for its IT industry and a swanky new international airport—alerted our staff to this travesty. (via Gautam Bastian)

Pragati Blocked

Now, we fully respect that company’s right to prevent its employers from taking their eyes off the job (do they padlock their watercoolers too?).

But we wish to inform the public that Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review does not fall into the ‘forbidden category’ of ‘Games’. Content filtering services have some way to go.