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  Asia-Pacific
Internet Scandal in India
Argue over Freedom on Internet
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor

A schoolboy in India used a mobile camera telephone to record the sex he had with a schoolmate and used the bluetooth technology to transfer it to a friend, who in turn circulated it further till the clip was posted on an internet portal.

This was the beginning of a scandal. Portal operators came under a cloud when the chief of the offending website was arrested, although the clip was hastily removed the moment it was came to notice.

There is now a furious debate on how much freedom the internet ought to enjoy. In principle, the internet is no different from a newspaper or a magazine, which is held responsible for the material it publishes. Internet service providers have been arguing that they must be treated like the postal services which are not liable to be prosecuted in case the material they carry and deliver turns out to be illegal.

However, websites publish their own material and that of others, and hence are as good as printed publications.

In an editorial, a leading Indian newspaper stated: "The use of filtering software to detect offensive material and removing such material the moment it is brought to notice are the minimum that would be expected.

Without a more active system of monitoring that ensures offensive material does not find it ways in, the impression that the internet is lawless and also oblivious to notions of right and wrong will only be strengthened, prompting moves for tighter regulation."

Now what can such regulation be? Obviously, this can mean keeping record of every person who buys a computer, because it is only at this point that control can be effective. But here again, this method can hardly be foolproof, for one can always blog from a, for instance, a neighbour's computer.

We saw that happen in Iraq, when bloggers kept the world informed of precisely what was going on, beating in the bargain the censored versions that were being put out by the U.S. and its allies.

Admittedly, pornography is a different game, especially child pornography, which no country tolerates. But the question is can this be tackled by placing greater curbs on the internet and its providers? Hardly.

What may be really sad is that in the event of stringent controls — as practised in some parts of the world, Islamic parts in particular — a vast number of users who have really no interest in pornography or anything as remotely contemptuous may tend to suffer. And this number can be as high as 80 percent of the internet users. Must the innocent majority suffer for the wrongs of the small minority?

Today, the internet has undoubtedly become a fascinating facilitator of information and knowledge. Literally, the world is just a click away, and even in poorer nations such as India, the internet revolution has caught on in proportions that were frankly unimaginable even some five years ago.

Hundreds of internet parlours have sprung up across the length and breadth of the country providing easy and relatively cheap access to information. The hundreds of thousands of people, especially youngsters, who cannot afford to buy a personal computer throng internet cafes for surfing at unbelievably low rates.

In such a scenario, it would make little sense to place curbs on the internet. And one must remember that this a very new medium, a very new discovery, and much like other inventions, the internet too has the potential to provoke anger and suspicion. If one were to look at history, just about every discovery lent itself to fear, resentment and even hostility.

The steam engine was termed a monster, and people were frightened by those who had an axe to grind. The same was the case with the electric bulb that invited the wrath of candle-makers. It may not be farfetched to imagine the kind of anger the internet may be evoking in some.

But like the steam engine and the electric bulb, the internet will live on and flourish. A clip or two of pornography on it should not be allowed to damage the reputation of the internet. Neither should that be cited as a cause for controls on this medium, controls that can suffocate the immense utility of the internet.

So, a reasonable solution to the kind of scandal that India witnessed may lie not in curtailing the freedom of the internet, but in preventing child pornography itself with stricter enforcement of the law.

But when children themselves are involved, the finger must be pointed not at the internet but at parents, teachers and society in general. If a boy were to photograph his own sexual act and have it posted on the website, this indicates not just exhibitionism and titillation, but something far more disturbing. And society must take the rap, not an internet portal.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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