Taking inspiration from the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), an annual global event, the India Internet Governance Conference aims to provide a platform for an inclusive dialogue on Internet-related policy in India, that involves governments, business, civil society, media, technical community, academia and youth. Fourteen sessions have been planned across two days, and over sixty eminent speakers have been invited keeping in mind their diverse backgrounds, interest and expertise from within India and across the world.
Participation in the whole event is free and all stake-holders are welcome to attend. More information on the session on ‘Freedom of expression online and hate speech: What is the balanced approach?’ that the Internet Democracy Project is championing is below. For more information on the meeting in general and to register online, please check the IIGC website.
Background: ‘Freedom of expression online and hate speech: What is the balanced approach?’
The Internet has allowed more people to express themselves and be heard than was ever imagined possible. Yet with the new possibilities unfortunately has also come a new visibility of hatespeech and intolerance. At the global level, the tensions between the two trends were first highlighted in 2005-06, when the publication in a Danish newspaper of a set of cartoons that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad in a derogatory light led to violence in several countries in the Muslim world. In India, similar challenges came sharply to the fore in August 2012. It has emerged that social media might have played a significant role in fuelling rumours and threats that ultimaly led to the exodus of North-East Indians from Bangalore and Pune at that time. Doctored pictures and inflammatory messages of alleged atrocities against Muslims, distributed via the Internet and mobile phones, are also believed to have contributed to rioting in Mumbai. The matter of hate speech and intolerance online thus clearly requires our urgent attention.
Contrary to popular belief, fighting hate speech and promoting free expression need not be contradictory, however. While free speech can be restricted in exceptional cases, overall it facilitates the exercise of other human rights. In that sense, the right to freedom of expression is a solution to instances of hatred based on gender, caste, religion, ethnicity, nationality, disability or sexual orientation. Indeed, the right to equality and the right to freedom of expression play complementary and mutually reinforcing roles in securing and safeguarding human dignity. Where cause for concern arises, however, is where restrictions on freedom of speech that have been introduced into law for legitimate reasons are used by governments and others to clamp down on news and views that are inconvenient. Even prickliness is at times held up as a reason to deny frank speeck. Legitimate checks easily slide into illegitimate censorship.
How to prevent such sliding from happening? Efforts to regulate free speech on the Internet must comply with international human rights standards.1 In India, sections 69A and 79 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008, which give censorship powers to the government and/or private citizens, do not. For example, neither requires the intervention of a court at any point in time; instead, both support and promote purely administrative censorship. This is troubling because administrations usually tend to go overboard, rather than carefully balance competing interests as courts do. In the case of the Internet, such decisions may have transnational repercussions. In addition, neither section of the IT Act provides for transparency. A debate is needed on how to strengthen the law, so as to remove any doubts about the legitimacy of possible interventions in this area by the Indian government as well as to improve their effectiveness.
Legal measures, however, can only be the last resort. For the battle against hate speech to be successful, it must be preceded and complimented by non-legal measures as well. This is especially true in the case of hate speech on the Internet, as both the sheer volume of content posted everyday and the cross-boundary nature of the free and open Internet complicate effective implementation of the law. It is therefore important to investigate in greater detail the role that different actors – Internet intermediaries, the media, religious and community leaders and the government – might have voluntarily played so far in fostering or fighting hate speech, and how their positive contributions can be strengthened. Drawing on examples from other mature democracies, especially those that are multiethnic, can be helpful in this conversation.
In order to ensure that the fight against hate speech does not harm the right to freedom of expression but rather strengthens it, it is thus essential to review legislation and the related processes, to assess and strengthen the potential role of various actors in the fight against hate speech, and to start devising and implementing non-legal measures to battle intolerance and hate. In order for these measures to be successful, it is crucial that all stakeholders are centrally involved.
What are the UN standards for human rights governing (hate) speech and to what extent are Indian laws and practices compatible with these standards?
Under which conditions can anti-hate speech legislation end up curtailing legitimate speech and how can this be prevented?
What is the potential impact of national anti-hate censorship measures on the free and open global Internet?
What is/has been the role of different actors (including Internet intermediaries, the media, religious and community leaders and the government) in fostering and fighting hate speech, and how can their positive contributions be strengthened through measures other than censorship?
Are there positive examples on how to battle hate speech from other mature democracies to draw on?
Panellists: ‘Freedom of expression online and hate speech: What is the balanced approach?’
The following panellists will be joining the session:
Manish Tewari, Member of Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) & National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress
Sagarika Ghose, Deputy Editor, CNN IBN
Richard Allan, Director of Policy EMEA, Facebook
Mishi Choudhary, Executive and Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Centre India
Siddharth Narrain, Legal Researcher and Lawyer, Alternative Law Forum
Moderator of the session is Sevanti Ninan, Media columnist and editor, theHoot.org