Does India Deserve the Internet Freedom it Enjoys?


Does India Deserve the Internet Freedom it Enjoys?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The internet is like the aloo in the biryani of life. You can probably get by without using it, but with it, the experience is far better. Of course, sometimes like a half-cooked aloo, the internet leaves a bad taste in your mouth by way of a close encounter with a troll or a toxic article. For all its highs and lows, we can’t imagine life without the internet in 2018. How else would we take digs at each other on Twitter, order unhealthy food through Zomato, or share our review of Sanju with the world?

Maybe we Indians take our internet freedom for granted. Today, the European Court of Justice rejected a law that, if passed, could adversely affect the proliferation of the internet’s lifeblood – memes and parodies. The law holds websites responsible for copyright violations concerning user-submitted content. Yep, that means if you’re in Europe, you might not be able to create and share that fire meme of Neymar rolling on the field because your social media site would have had to flag it, lest they be held responsible.

The reason this law is so crippling to the flow of information on the internet is because of two controversial aspects. First, it requires websites and search engines to pay news outlets for linking to their stories, making cross-posting links financially prohibitive. Secondly, it expects websites that allow users to post content (aka every social media platform), to individually assess each post for copyright violations. That’s just not humanly possible, and the algorithms in place for the task right now, like YouTube’s, have proven expensive and error-prone.

This isn’t going down smoothly – just like that half-cooked aloo in your biryani – and there have been protests from several quarters. In a move that must have given students working on summer assignments a heart attack, online encyclopaedia Wikipedia went dark in several European countries, including Italy and Spain.

India might have shitty web denizens who troll a movie star’s teenage daughter for wearing a swimsuit during a beach holiday, but at least we’re using a (relatively) free internet. After today’s ruling, it seems like India’s internet health is better than the EU’s. As Wikipedia mentioned in its appeal, if the EU Court approves the proposal, that means it may soon “be impossible to share a newspaper article on social networks or find it on a search engine”.

India might not be the frontrunners in several ethical tech debates, we play fast and loose with our biometric information, and “data protection” means hiding it behind physical walls that are 13 ft X 5 ft. But at least we have this.

Imagine the chaos if this were implemented in India: Your mom might expect you to overcome government regulations and find her a picture of Taimur Ali Khan, because no one on her WhatsApp group has seen the tyke in weeks. Meanwhile, Alok Nath has replaced Mukesh Ambani as the nation’s richest man because of royalties from all the memes in which he’s appeared. Arnab Goswami will quietly fade from the nation’s consciousness because nobody pays Republic money to link to their stories. Sadly, since #fakenews never comes from reputable sources, and is thus unprotected by copyright, you will still be receiving messages from your xenophobic aunt about love jihad.

The copyright reforms are not even the first attack on the freedom of the internet in this year. On June 11, the US dropped its net neutrality rules, allowing Internet Service Providers to regulate how fast a website loads for its audience depending on how much the website has paid the ISP. In simpler terms, it’s like the internet is a milch cow you own, except that now you’re only allowed to milk one teat on the udder, and have to pay a third party for access to the others. (I might have stretched that analogy a little, but you get my drift.)

On the other hand, you have a case like India’s. When social media giant Facebook made a play at offering “free” internet to users in the country in 2016, the public saw through the scheme that was Facebook’s Free Basics. The plan would have affected net neutrality in the same way it is being affected in the US, with Facebook in the role of the ISP. Thankfully, the company that is currently famous for its CEO lying to the Senate and for sharing its users’ data with any advertiser who asked, was not able to get its paws on India’s internet.

That’s something to be thankful for. India might not be the frontrunners in several ethical tech debates, we play fast and loose with our biometric information, and “data protection” means hiding it behind physical walls that are 13 ft X 5 ft. But at least we have this.  

It might seem shocking, given how some of our ministers think it was invented during the Mahabharata, but the Indian internet is actually a marvel – we might even be in a position to make some Western nations jealous. Even though there have been flashes of censorship, like the porn ban, they’ve been fleeting. In fact, the porn ban was rolled back in a matter of days, especially since our ministers can’t keep off the smut, even in Parliament.

And yet. Look what we make of this opportunity. While the rest of the world sees the internet go from a Marxist utopia, where every person had an equal voice, to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where paywalls, surveillance, and censorship suck the joy out of browsing the internet, we’re happy to use it to spread fake news that leads to lynchings and violently threaten anyone with an ideological difference.

There’s an old saying that goes, “The youth is wasted on the young.” I want to propose an amendment. “The internet is wasted on Indians.”