As Sweet As Honey, As Free As The Web

As Sweet As Honey, As Free As The Internet“Article about freedom on the Internet published in my bi-weekly column for the Maharashtra Herald daily newspaper.” has been getting the Internet a lot of bad publicity of late. Orkut is a site where you can find old friends and make new ones. It has 1000s of communities and millions of active members. But this popularity has also made Orkut the favourite punching bag for the media today. It may be an obscure Orkut community that defames a national icon or some anti-Indian post on an Orkut forum, but it all becomes sensational news very quickly.

The reasons why we keep seeing these news are –
1) It’s very easy to find improper things on Orkut. If you spend 15 min on Orkut you will find somebody somewhere talking nonsense about some great man or saying things that might be offensive to someone.
2) Orkut’s popularity ensures that any Orkut news gets a lot of attention.
3) Orkut will always provide a steady stream of controversial news, as moderating Orkut is close to impossible.
So if a 24 hr news channel is short of news it can always pick something from Orkut or an offensive video from YouTube and blow the story out of proportion.

We need to understand that it’s in the very nature of the Internet to be a medium free of boundaries and controls. It’s one of the most important reasons why the Internet has been so successful. The Chinese recently forced Google to censor search results such that if you search for “Tiananmen Square” on you get results and photos about the protests and the massacre but if you do the same search on (Google China) you get information on tour operators and travel agents in the area and no mention of the protests. Fortunately most democracies like India haven’t indulged in censorship of this kind, as yet. So finding anti-India articles and info is still fairly simple.

However if we keep shouting from the rooftops every time some misguided soul posts a defamatory message on Orkut or a video on YouTube, we would commit the blunder of giving our politicians a reason to restrict the Internet. Easy availability of information is what most autocrats and dictators fear the most. If the masses are willing to give up their right to information, the rulers would be more than happy to take it away.

In countries like the US and UK you would see that it is primarily people’s fear of terrorism that has enabled governments to ignore privacy issues and interfere and watch the daily lives of their citizens. If the media in India keeps fueling people’s fear of the Internet, we will one day have to take a government license to surf the net. Laws might even make it mandatory for every Internet user to submit a usage log to the government each month. These measures will in probability fail to control wrong doing but they sure will cause a lot of headaches to honest and innocent citizens.

“Minds are like Parachutes. They work only when open” goes a famous Sidhuism. So even if there’s an article online that does not fall in line with our current beliefs, it still might be good food for thought. If we close our minds and only seek information that conforms to our current beliefs, our closed parachute can only lead to a fatal crash.

You might be thinking “Ok, but what about my kid running into the wrong content”. The Internet sure can be used to perpetrate crime and particularly crime against unsuspecting children. However all it takes to stop this is to spend some time understanding how you can be in control of things and then installing the right parental control software.

A simple trick is to just tell your child that he/she is not allowed to clean the browser history. Even the potential threat of you checking browser history and noticing an improper website will keep your child in check. You need to educate your children about potential dangers online rather than scaring them away from a treasure chest of valuable information.

I have seen mothers not letting teenagers use email or surf the web because of a fear that they will come to some harm from the Internet. That’s definitely not the way. You cannot deprive your child of the immense knowledge available on the net just because you are unwilling to spend the time or take the effort to learn how you can protect them.

To borrow a line from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”. The Internet is that great power. Giving up the power or cursing it for some petty side effects, I don’t think is very wise.

(Continued… Click here “As Sweet As Honey, As Free As The Web” for the entire article). Published as part of my fortnightly column for the Maharashtra Herald)