Archie Bland: The internet is just too stretched to censor the dirty bits

 

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You couldn't fault him for a lack of ambition. But for a
telecommunications minister, India's Kapil Sibal appears to be
lacking in an understanding of telecommunications.

What Mr Sibal is planning is to impose what might be the world's most comprehensive internet censorship regime on the world's biggest democracy. He has made an ingenious interpretative attempt to win the argument for doing so by explaining that he is not interested in censorship, just in the prior screening of potentially offensive websites, which is obviously completely different. He wants Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft to check user content and delete it if it is too rude. Oh, and he doesn't want them to find automated processes that will achieve the task. He wants it to be done by people.

It doesn't take a particularly sophisticated understanding of technology to realise what a hare-brained scheme this is: you only need to consider the maths. There are 100 million internet users in India, and more every day; besides that, anyone in the world is presumably able to create a web-page that offends "community standards as they are applicable in India". That is an awful lot of internet to censor. Sorry, to screen. Indeed, when one technical expert was asked about the feasibility of such a scheme by the FT, he responded with a peal of derisive laughter.

Even if this were not the case, Mr Sibal's rationale would be questionable. Executives who attended the meeting in which he fulminated about the filth available online say he was particularly exercised about a Facebook page that maligned Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party. It is hard to see, in this presumably not totally random example, strong evidence of his concern for the moral wellbeing of the Indian people.

Now, since the policy is so utterly unworkable, there's no great need for any clarion calls to defend the freedom of speech. But at such a moment it's worth wondering whether the likes of Mr Sibal will consider what effect such policies actually have.

By and large, and excluding the North Koreas of this world, the countries with the most repressive approach to the internet – whether that approach is enshrined in law or preserved by social norms – are also the ones with the most internet cafés. And in any booth in any such internet café, it takes only the most cursory check of the web history to confirm that on a very regular basis, such rules are being vigorously, and filthily, breached. Screen that, Mr Sibal. But best to keep your eyes shut while you're doing it, eh?

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