Net Loss: Sajan Venniyoor


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Net: noun, verb.

1. a contrivance of strong thread or cord worked into an open, meshed fabric, for catching fish, birds, or  other animals
2. anything serving to catch or ensnare

The other day, in a Parliamentary debate on Internet Rules 2011, the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha said something so absurd that for a moment I thought he had joined the government. “You can control print and electronic media, but not internet,” he said, only removing his foot from his mouth to add, “If internet had been in existence, Emergency would have been a fiasco.”

Actually, if the Emergency had been in existence, the Internet would have been a fiasco.

The truth is that the Internet is laughably easy to control. Not that she has tried, but it would take Ms. Ambika Soni forever and a day to shut down a single radio station or TV channel. Mr. Gulshan Rai of CERT-IN could shut down a dozen websites without stirring from his bed; and probably does.

Google’s Transparency Report says, “These days it’s not unusual for us to receive more than 250,000 [take down] requests each week, which is more than what copyright owners asked us to remove in all of 2009.” It is not clear how many of these take-down requests they comply with – it should run into the tens of thousands – but when the Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore, sent out frivolous take-down notices to seven prominent intermediaries, six of them immediately crapped in their pants and ‘over-complied with the notices, despite the apparent flaws in them.

Contrast this with the response of the print and electronic media. A couple of weeks ago, the I&B Minister admitted in Parliament that though there were “15 different laws to check content on television and print media,” she could not issue a directive for action against any particular channel or newspaper. She added, rather plaintively, that the government faced legal notices whenever it issued advisories to television channels.

That is not entirely true: last year, the government had issued 105 notices for the ‘take-down’ of offensive content, and in 85 cases, the TV channel had complied. In fifteen cases, the TV channel took the government to court. Admittedly, these were serious violations of the Broadcast Code involving ‘obscene and vulgar re-mix songs’, underpants and a fairness cream (not in the same ad, though), and not the sort of light-hearted stuff you find on the net, the kind where some upright citizen recommends that a well-known Dalit and feminist poet should be raped on live TV.

When the Madras High Court issues an order banning torrent sites like The Pirate Bay and video sharing sites like Vimeo, the ISP does not ride the (snail-like) Indian Constitution into battle. He bends over and “puts in place an overreaching, wildly imaginative and totally ludicrous ban” on the fun half of the internet, and blocks a few completely unrelated sites just to be on the safe side. If the High Court issues an order to shut down a radio or TV channel… the mind boggles.

The fact is that internet users are perceived as having so little invested in setting up a website or posting content on it that taking down a few – or a few thousand – URLs is not seen as a threat to freedom of expression the way a similar assault on a TV channel would be. Mr. Jaitley’s observation on the ubiquity of the internet, that the circulation is so wide that fear psychosis is demolished, cuts both ways.

Content on the net is paradoxically both enduring and ephemeral. But the print and electronic media, like the Moving Finger, writes and moves on; not all your piety nor Broadcast Codes can lure it back to cancel half a line. The best the I&B Ministry can do, when they get their knickers in a twist over ‘Chadti Jawani’, is to order the channel to ‘run a scroll of warning’, which the channel promptly does (since the TRPs are already in).

A great deal is invested in a newspaper or radio station or TV channel. The PCI chief may, like Moses from on high, condemn the tribe of journalists as ignorant, wayward elements with little sense of right and wrong, but a newspaper lives by its reputation. It has a local habitation and a name. It does not hide behind ‘anonymous’.

Billu Barber enjoys the same Article 19 freedoms as Messers Airtel and Reliance, but the government knows better than to pursue an errant individual with take-down notices. The intermediaries are so much easier to target. This is nothing new for broadcasters: under the Cable TV Networks Act of 1995, the cable operator is held responsible for everything that’s carried on her cable. I suppose this made some kind of perverse sense when the broadcaster was an American citizen uplinking his TV channel from Hong Kong on a Dutch satellite (while tapping phones in Britain).

With the Uplinking / Downlinking Guidelines in place, the broadcaster is fair game too, and there’s a bunch of hawk-eyed young people sitting before an array of TV screens in the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre in Delhi who can be counted on not to let a single flash of lingerie go unobserved and unwarned. (There is, of course, the wretched business of ‘undesirable content being shown at the local level by the cable operators’, over which the Centre has no control. In spite of repeated orders to State governments to set up local Monitoring Committees, cable operators continue to ‘disturb the public tranquility’ by showing stuff that we regrettably don’t get to see in New Delhi).

Contrast this with FM radio, a determinedly local medium, which can be heard only within a few dozen kilometres of the source. Short of parking a monitoring unit under each transmission tower, there’s simply no way of knowing what radio stations are up to. Hence the total ban on news on radio. This extreme form of prior restraint has few parallels in the Indian media. In fact, it has no parallel. There is not a single medium in India other than private radio over which news is banned. This is pre-censorship on steroids.

The important thing to note, though, is by the very nature of radio broadcasting, the I&B Ministry depends more or less self-regulation by radio stations. There is not a whole lot the Centre can do if a radio station in, say, Thoothukudi decides to broadcast the news or if some local Hard Harry pretends to jerk off on air. Community standards would kick in, I suppose, and community policing would do the rest. But only if you know who’s broadcasting and from where.

The internet has VPNs and workarounds. The broadcaster has pirate radio. For reasons unknown, Indians have been particularly law-abiding broadcasters. If illegal radio exists in India, it’s a closely guarded secret. But there are a number of radio stations in our neighbourhood that broadcast pretty much what they want without fear of retribution.

Reports are coming in that, months after the Pakistani Army claimed to have flushed the Taliban out of Bajaur, in north west Pakistan, “the outfit’s militants have resurfaced in the insurgency-hit tribal region and resumed broadcasts on their illegal FM radio channel warning the women against casting votes.” Mullah Fazlullah, the former commander of the Taliban in Swat, was better known as Mullah Radio because of his sermons and threats – mostly threats – on his illegal radio station(s). Fazlullah would announce which building he would bomb on the morrow or which rival he would assassinate. It made for compelling radio – he had a devout audience.

The FATA region of Pakistan was once such a hot-bed of illegal radio, and competition between rival religious broadcasters grew so fierce, that shooting wars ensued. The Pakistani Army finally stepped in and levelled some of the radio stations.

Censorship by artillery fire, something our government hasn’t resorted to yet.

How much effort does it really take to shut down a website? Workarounds notwithstanding, you can’t hide on the net, as China has proved time and again (an example the Indian judiciary seems perfectly willing to emulate). For all kinds of legal, technical and political reasons, shutting down a newspaper or TV channel isn’t nearly so easy. The very ease of access that the internet provides could well be its undoing.

(Sajan Venniyoor is a Delhi-based writer.)

4 thoughts on “Net Loss: Sajan Venniyoor”

  1. There are inherent structural differences between modulating the airwaves (broadcast) and data transmission on IP layer. The babus at Sibal’s office are yet to figure this out, but I’m sure with elections coming soon, they will figure it out.

    Meanwhile, as far as we, the people are concerned, “pirate” communications is far easier on the terrestrial analogue platform compared to IP layer. Transmission hardware is cheap and easily available at your local hardware grey market. Its tough to monitor. Clincher is that it’s free to air. Yessir – no ISP required for reception, just a antenna you can make yourself for less than hundred rupees in case of TV, and 40-50 rupees FM receiver sets are easily available in case of FM radio. Airwaves as public property in the radical sense, so to speak.

    If hundreds of thousands of people start pirate broadcasting on TV and Radio, then govt will have no choice but to spend time – not censoring but doing damage control- much like how the 1995 Cable TV Act was drafted as an acknowledgment that cable TV operators had mushroomed beyond control.

    As you say, being a pirate on the IP layer, remains, a much harder task for the aam aadmi.


  2. Instinctively, what Sajan is saying makes sense, the Internet seems to be increasingly the most common field where we can see both state and non state attempts to censor material. From the viewpoint of legal procedure and cases being used to stifle voices, the Internet, with its capacity to cross domestic and national borders so easily certainly seems to give to innovations in legal procedure that could be used to censor. For instance, the ability to file complaints across jurisdiction because of the cause of action arises not just at the place of production of the material or speech in question, but also at the place of circulation or consumption, means that material circulating on the Internet are ripe for cases of defamation, hate speech etc. The wider the reach of this technology, the more susceptible it seems to be to this form of censorship. Of course, television and radio have always have a wide reach, so this cant be purely a function of technology, but it certainly seems as if there’s a certain way in which this technology is structured that, while it enables ease of access, like Sajan points to, is now bringing with it a attempts to censor that are also enabled through the same structural mechanisms and technologies peculiar to the internet


  3. For once, all I have to say is: brilliant brilliant sense of humour!!!!!!!!!! Most AWESOME. If I could write like that I wouldn’t ask for another thing in life. The style is killer enough, and the arguments and facts don’t need readers’ endorsement anyway. Lovely job of threading together all sorts of oppression and unethical behaviour – from batting for Meena Kandasamy to clean-bowled-ing Murdoch dear….Thanks for a wonderful read.


  4. “In fact, it turns out that the Internet is a rather brittle weapon of transformation. If the icon of revolution in the 20th century was the AK-47, for many observers the 21st century icon is the Internet-connected cameraphone. But the AK-47 is a stand-alone technology. The smartphone, conversely, is completely dependent upon a complex physical infrastructure—cellular towers, mobile network providers, the wires and routers behind it all, and more. Of course, this isn’t just a peculiar limitation of cell phones; every type of Internet technology requires an elaborate physical network in order to function. And as protestors from Tehran to San Francisco have discovered, such networks are easy to shut down.”

    “The Internet May Have Upended Traditional Institutions, But It’s a Brittle Weapon” – Jamais Cascio, The Daily Beast, 25 Jun.


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