Application of the laws of the real world to the Internet is bound to fail.

Neither the Internet service providers (ISPs) nor the Government has emerged with glory in the controversy over the latter's order directing the former to block certain web sites carrying offensive content. The ISPs obliged, even though the order was patently defective inasmuch as it did not specify the authority under which such a directive was issued. Evidently, considerations of business expediency have outweighed consumer interests.

The Government has always presented India to the community of foreign investors as a liberal, democratic and rule-based society. Yet, this image would have surely been dented by the amateurish move to block access to these web sites. In a rule-based society, any government directive must clearly spell out the statute under which it derives the authority; this was lacking in the instant case. Again, the Government never sought to ascertain from the ISPs if they have the mechanism to block specific pages of web logs as opposed to blocking the site itself though on an earlier occasion too a similar directive led to the entire web site being blocked and Internet users being put to great difficulty and inconvenience. More important, it ought to have been implemented in a transparent manner as the issue is not something that concerns just the ISPs alone but the public at a large.

The episode raises a broader concern: Has the Government taken on more than it can reasonably hope to administer? Policing the amorphous World Wide Web has defied the capabilities of the most autocratic regime. That apart, by attempting to steer the Indian public off content that might be offensive to certain sections it is exposing itself to similar demands from others, especially those with extremely narrow sectarian agenda, for a ban on content that they may regard as offensive. Ignoring them would invite charges of bias. The Government's predicament stems in part from its attempt to apply laws of the real world in the Internet context. This is bound to fail.

Unlike the regular media, the Internet is far less intrusive. An offensive remark delivered from a public platform or a movie scene that wounds religious sensibilities of a community are examples of real world content that impose themselves on their audience. The aggrieved can legitimately look to the Government for protection from such an assault. In contrast, offensive propaganda on the Internet does not come packaged as part of some wholesome content and, to that extent, a user can has the choice of paying attention to it or not. So both from a practical standpoint of enforcement and by virtue of its special nature, offensive content on the web is best left severely alone.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated July 24, 2006)
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