There is a distinct sense of discomfort when you realize that all is not what it seems – that perhaps the very concept of freedom of speech is nothing but eyewash. The censorship debate is eternal, is it not? What is acceptable and what is not. Who decides what is acceptable? Where do you draw the line? Who draws that line? Who plays God with opinion?
I come from a society where there is a constant conflict in ideologies – religious, ethnic, political, and societal. Opinions waver, change, and influence. Quite honestly, I have always been a fence-sitter when it comes to censorship. There are after all, logical and valid arguments to be made by both sides.
More often than not, I am one of perhaps millions who, in the face of censorship, just get on with life. Like recently when our government banned the SMS service – albeit for a brief period of time – limiting it to just 5 a day (increasing the number to 20 later). I figured there was something to that rule. After all, they were banned after malicious messages against a particular community were sent out in Bangalore leading to widespread panic. (Read about it here and here)
But, what does that have to do with a motorsports blog, you may wonder? Here’s why. A week ago, Tata Photon, the Internet Service Provider blocked WordPress.com. I wasn’t informed of this new “policy”. Instead, I spent several days trying to get my laptop fixed. It never once crossed my mind that this was censorship at its element.
After all, I could access my website’s statistics page, but the Dashboard and my website itself proved elusive. The customer care too insisted that everything was working at their end. It was my laptop, they said. Desperate I went to the service centre. I used their Wi-Fi and discovered just the opposite. I realized that Tata Photon had blocked WordPress – all of it.
I have spent the bulk of this week changing service providers. The customer care at Tata Photon continues to insist that they haven’t blocked WordPress. But this entire experience, of not being able to write, has left me stunned, with an overriding sense of disbelief.
The confidence I felt in my freedom to express my opinion is shaken. My instant reaction is that I run a motorsports blog. There is nothing inflammatory here – unless of course it is about Michael Schumacher. So, why gag me? But at its heart, there is a realization that my very right to speech has been taken away from me. What right does the government have to censor my freedom of expression? How can an ISP block an entire service – just because they can?
For the first time in my life, I feel a sense of claustrophobia. I wonder if there will come a time when I am carted off to jail, simply because my opinion differs from that of the government? Hold on, this is India. We don’t do things like this.
But we have in the past. Dig deep and there are closets full of skeletons that come to the fore. One of my biggest questions, however, has been why the media has been quiet on this issue. This column gave me some perspective.
We can argue that social media needs to be monitored for the sake of national security. But at what cost? Who gets to decide? And why do they get to decide? I believe that the right to speech, the right to express ourselves, our opinion, is one of the key cornerstones of a democracy. Take that away and all you are left with is just the shell of a State.