An edited version of this appears in the Lokmat Times
The United Kingdom has been reeling under the impact of scandal after scandal to hit the news industry, especially the role of news in tapping phones to get scoops. An official Inquiry was set up headed by Justice Leveson to look into this and amongst the recommendations that they made was that bloggers and users of twitter facing the same rules as the main stream media. The Inquiry recommended that the law be enforced against the online community to avoid a drop in the high standards of journalism practised by the mainstream media. This is kind of ironic, given that the Inquiry was set up to deal with the impact of consistent rogue behaviour by the Mainstream Media in the United Kingdom. Currently the British Parliament is debating whether to bring in a regulator for bloggers who carry news & editorial content, and whether to impose higher fines on those who do not comply.
Index on Censorship has this to say on the debate
the Royal Charter’s loose definition of a ‘relevant publisher’ as a ‘website containing news-related material’ means blogs could be regulated under this new law as well. This will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on everyday people’s web use.
“Bloggers could find themselves subject to exemplary damages in court, due to the fact that they were not part of a regulator that was not intended for them in the first place. This mess of legislation has been thrown together with alarming haste: there’s little doubt we’ll repent for a while to come.”
Given that much of India’s IT laws are influenced by those in the UK, the Indian on-line community needs to start preemptive action to ensure that such laws are not passed in India. Already there are issues with the IT Act that curb freedom of expression. A regulator would just clamp down on the diversity that the net allows. There are a million flowers that bloom here, and a million opinions that are expressed – many of them cater to a fraction of the audience commanded by main stream media, with little or no financial backing and an inability to access high quality legal help. There are also practical issues – how do you regulate millions of websites. Also, if you are not registered with a regulator, can you not discuss news or editorialize? And is a regulated on-line world real time ?
In a Democracy there will always be views that will make some people uncomfortable. Yet it is this discomfort that allows Democracy to thrive. There are today, sites that look at news specific to gender issues that attack patriarchy; sites that look at Dalit and Tribal issues that attack caste practises; right wing sites that put forth their world view and attack the liberal ones; left wing sites that promote their ideology and attack everyone else – these are all independent perspectives. They have the right to be expressed. News media on the other hand is supposed to report and disseminate information. It is Mainstream Media that has strayed into the world of opinion and opinion making, the online world has not strayed into news. Also, if bloggers ought to be regualated, what about microbloggers . More of us get more traction on twitter than anywhere else. More views are shared, more dogma expressed & broken, more exchanges of ideas and ideals than anywhere else – also more that could be considered libelous by the powers that be. I have this vision of each nation creating their own version of Weibo, where sophisticated filters, million of watchers and absolute regulation rule. In china’s case, it is a communist nation and it makes no apologies for censorship. What excuse do Democracies have - protecting the existing power structure ?
Finally, the world has changed. The centralized power and information structure held by a few is dispersing. The net allows for anyone to be a publisher from anywhere. How do you regulate freedom? And, if you try and regulate it, is it still freedom ?