Thursday, January 26, 2012

SOPA, PIPA, Kapil Sibal and Ad Hominem

In recent times, we have seen a huge furore against policing on the internet, both in India and globally. In the US, SOPA and PIPA have been positioned as instruments of state control (even Wikipedia went on a 24-hour black out against this); while in India everyone and their dog has cried foul against Mr Sibal.

Now, neither Mr. Sibal not the US Congress are saints. But we need to see what they are saying instead of attacking a framework just because it has been presented by them.

The US wants to expand the current copyright framework and clamp down on online piracy aggressively. I cannot see how this is against freedom of expression.

The whole issue boils down to the issue of "user-generated content". Over the past 18 months, we have seen many forums that host content contributed by the user - Blogs with comments, facebook, youtube, etc. This has been a magnificent addition because this has democratized creativity, so to say. One does not need to have a grand distribution system to launch a video/album. You put something together, get it up on youtube and it will take off if it is good. On good websites, the comments section has increased the value of the article to the reader immensely. They have taken this urge in people to express and converted this into a wonderful positive externality. So, user-generated content has generally been a huge positive.

However, the provision of this platform has lent itself to two forms of abuse - copyright violation and hate commentary. Anyone who feels compelled to do so can upload highlights of a football match or streaming video of a concert. Thanks to technology the costs of doing this is very low. And most people do this in order to increase traffic to their blog/channel. This is not user-generated content - this is called IP theft.

Facebook, youtube and co have found a wonderful way to help ordinary people find a platform for expression. What they have also found is an equally wonderful way to monetize this. Even if they were not monetizing this, they should be held responsible for content that gets aired. I cannot imagine a legal framework where some movies cannot be aired but can be showcased on youtube,

The cloak of anonymity gives many cowards the "courage" to air their thoughts. This is why the internet is more hateful, shameless and edgier than real life. Facebook, youtube should provide all details to help nail the offenders. They cannot simply shrug their shoulders and hide behind freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression has established limits in almost every country. In India, one cannot incite religious hatred in the name of FOE. Even in the far more liberal Euro-land, holocaust denial is a crime. In almost all countries, freedom of expression does not include the right to air content created by someone else. That is Intellectual Property Right violation. The internet need not adhere to stricter standards than the real world. But, it most definitely should adhere to the basic tenets agreed upon in each country.

If it is considered illegal to say random stuff about religion in India, it must be considered illegal to post it on facebook on Indian accounts. And if facebook cannot take responsibility for this, I do not know who else can. Facebook, youtube, etc should be asked to monitor content aggressively. And a government agency should be given the powers and liberty to impose hefty fines if some violation sits on the website for more than, say, 6 hours. I would go to the extent of saying FB and youtube should be able to share their overall dope for the government agency to continuously screen the content with some sophisticated software. If any user can come up with a screenshot of offensive content, they should be able to send it to some government agency. If FB/youtube do not agree to this, said websites should be asked to take a hike.

Just because the odds of Kapil Sibal saying something sensible are very low, we should not take it that everything he spouts is incorrect. In fact, his reasons for wanting to monitor the web could be spurious, but the point still remains. Hiding under the garb of "user-generated content" is a lot of copyright violation and hate-speech. The sooner we face up to this reality and handle this the better.

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