Kapil Sibbal wants Facebook etc. to continuously monitor content so that anything that insults any one in the ruling party is nipped in the bud. And now, an Indian court has ordered FB and other social networking websites to  remove offensive content by Feb 6. The plaintiff has submitted a CD full of objectionable content found on online media, and wants it removed.

Language and censorship go hand in hand. When you have people who want to say stuff, you have people who don’t want it being said. Drawing the line is often not easy, but it is important to acknowledge that a line is necessary. A smart line, which allows for free expression of opinions, which allows people to show dissent and which leads to an atmosphere of healthy debate, but which doesn’t allow inflammatory content that specifically incites violence against specific communities and groups, whether they be based on caste, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or favourite brand of mineral water. Expressing dislike towards the way a particular group works should be allowed, but putting up inflammatory stuff that specifically attempts to incite violence should not be allowed. For instance, I can write blogs about my hatred for the use of Comic Sans MS and the abuse of Papyrus, but I really don’t want to do anything _bad_ to the people who do use/abuse these fonts,  except maybe send them a _Get Well Soon_ card. Of course it would be better if all this came with an increased tolerance for people who are different from us, but that’s too difficult. Picking on people who are different is an important way of social bonding, and we learn it pretty early in our life—whether it be jocks bullying geeks, or you making fun of the guy with curly hair or short fingers, or making some kid’s school life miserable because he is slightly effeminate.

But I don’t exactly get what the court wants this time. From whatever I could get from the news reports, the evidence submitted by the plaintiff was regarding anti-religious content.

The contents are certainly disrespectful to the religious sentiments and faith and seem to be intended to outrage the feelings of religious people whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian.

There are certain degrading and obscene photographs of various political leaders belonging to different political parties and photographs pasted and the language used is also obscene, filthy and degrading.

So yes, I would want these things removed too, though I would want to know exactly what it is that the court considers as inflammatory, especially because the _outrage threshold_ for most people when it comes to religious issues is very low. And I obviously don’t want trigger happy groups to get what they want just because they don’t like something on the internet. But then the court further says—

It appears from a bare perusal of the documents that prima facie the accused in connivance with each other and other unknown persons are selling, publicly exhibiting and have put into circulation obscene, lascivious content which also appears to the prurient interests and tends to deprave and corrupt the persons who are likely to read, see or hear the same.

The second half of that has been taken straight out of Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, apparently

Whoever publishes or transmits or causes to be published in the electronic form, any material which is lascivious or appeal to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely […]

Let me translate the court’s statement from Legalese into English

It looks as if FB and other sites, along with other people, are selling, publicly exhibiting and have put into circulation obscene, lascivious content which appears lecherous and tends to deprave and corrupt the persons who are likely to read, see or hear the same.

I am not a lawyer, and I know watching 101 episodes of Boston Legal doesn’t count as getting a training in law, so I won’t talk about the legal aspects of the whole thing. But obscene content that _appears to the prurient interests_ (basically, tharki tendencies) can be anything—from models in bikinis (Y U EXPOSE THIGHS IN INDIA?) to an actual work of art such as Savita Bhabhi. Of course, I am not condoning any attempt made to tarnish someone’s image—if you are publishing morphed images of your co-worker just to get back at them for spurning your hopeless advances, you should be put behind the bars, sure. From what I understand, courts of law work based on a precedent. And I am uncomfortable about what precedent this ruling is likely to set. Won’t the pictures on a page about female anatomy be considered as obscene because the pics there might appeal to the prurient interests and deprave individuals deprived of a means of sexual release?

And how can you even think of giving the social network responsibility and liability of policing content? What do you want exactly, local big brothers that decide what goes in and what doesn’t? I am not outraged. I am merely curious. And I am scared. This gives me terrible vibes. If you are a law student or lawyer, please give your views in the comments section.

I don’t know what to make of it. In the long run, of course, I would want a change in these silly laws. In the short run, however, these two stanzas from The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll sound very relevant.

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Were walking close at hand;

They wept like anything to see

Such quantities of sand:

“If this were only cleared away,”

They said, “it would be grand!”

If seven maids with seven mops

Swept it for half a year.

Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,

“That they could get it clear?”

“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,

And shed a bitter tear.

I am not sure how FB plans to police its online content. It can certainly delete the specific pages which have been exhibited by the plaintiff, but the way this stuff respawns itself, Facebook is going to have to go on cleaning vast quantities of sand.