The manner in which SOPA and PIPA claim to pursue perfectly legitimate objectives (preventing Intellectual Property theft and piracy) is dubious: rewarding service providers for overblocking user content (the vigilante provision), making them liable even for inadvertence, shutting down entire sites instead of only removing the offending content and, most tellingly, imposing liability merely for providing information. Of these many events, the fracas over Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses would have been the only one that isn’t directly related to internet free speech but for the fact that the entire book is freely available on the internet, thus making India’s ‘ban’ on its importation utterly meaningless.
Each of these controversies, though seemingly unrelated, is a concerted attack on that most fundamental of liberties, free speech. Each tries to stifle dissent. Each demands conformity and submission. These events are borne of a fear; a fear of ideas. Each is an assault on one idea in particular: the idea of liberty.
Ideas, as popular literature and film tell us, are resilient; they are contagious; and they are bullet-proof. But ideas are also subversive, for each idea is a challenge. Some ideas are more radical than others; these are a frontal challenge to an established order. This makes them dangerous, and men of radical ideas, from scientists to messiahs, have always been persecuted: Galileo and Copernicus, Martin Luther, the suffragettes, followers of Darwin. And yes, the origin of Christianity, like the history of many faiths, lies in a radical idea and a persecution.
Two ideas today are joined at the hip. The first is the liberty of speech, and the second is the internet. Of all the ideas of our time, none has had the power, impact and influence of the internet. The internet is not a thing, not an entity, not even just a network of networks; it is an epidemic of ideas that has changed everything. The one truly democratic medium, it gives everyone a voice, a means to express ideas. As a vehicle for free speech, it is unstoppable. 100 years ago when sound came down a wire, our world changed. Less than 30 years ago, when an exact replica of paper fed into a machine in Rio emerged a few minutes later in London, it changed again. With the internet, we learned to type, click, swipe and gesture. Now the next evolution is already at our doorstep: eye-tracking software and smartphones that can exchange data using light. What’s next? Direct communications of thoughts — and ideas. How will they police us then?
The internet is also about writing. Not just writing in its most obvious form, but text, for everything on the internet, whether it’s an image or a soundtrack, is digital text. The proliferation of textual representations of ideas is a freedom that will not be contained. Therefore, those who would corral it must fall back on nonsensical assertions of public order and morality, ignoring conveniently the fact that there is no evidence of any riot ever having started because of a Facebook post or a tweet.
Words are unsettling. They challenge, they question, they mock, they deride, they taunt. They give shape to subversive ideas. For those in authority, this is an uncomfortable state of affairs. What SOPA/PIPA, the court summons and the Indian government demand is self-censorship; a minute screening and verification of user-generated content. Every service provider must now check and assess every single bit of data put out by every user. This isn’t just technically impossible; it’s designed to substitute the policeman’s baton for discourse, to force submission. Consider the consequences: someone at Facebook or Twitter must decide, as an absolute standard, what is a permissible and what is prohibited, what is jest and what is serious.
Free speech is not about the comfort of conformity or the tranquillity of the familiar. It is about the tolerance of discomfiture, the acceptance of disorientation, about learning to live with discomfort. There is a very real danger to playing nice, to saying only that which does not offend, to steering clear of questions, doubts and aspersions. Free speech is not the right of musclemen and fanatics to block all views other than their own; it is the right of every person to doubt, to offend, to blame and it carries with it the right to respond in like coin. It does not include the right to threaten, to burn, to attack, to ban.
The Preamble to our Constitution contains an absolute: Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. The restrictions, which must be ‘reasonable’, come in Article 19(2), and not one of them is related to ‘blasphemy’. A ban is, by definition, unreasonable and is possibly far more than a ‘restriction’. Any government that says that it is unable to maintain public order because of something said or written is a government that is, at the very least, incompetent; and nothing in the Constitution entitles a government to ban or block any text on the ground of ineptitude. An abdication of duty or an inability to perform are feeble excuses for curtailing fundamental freedoms.
Permitting caricature, criticism and even jest is qualitatively different from advocating illegality and criminality. Proponents of bans are given to conflating these and lumping, say, a mocking of a faith with the propagation of child abuse. What is forgotten here is that internet users are not beyond the reach of the law. If, as the proponents of SOPA and PIPA claim, they are unable to reach sites in foreign jurisdictions, the answer is not to hammer sites within reach and to stifle innovation but to adapt the law to meet technological challenges. Restricting speech for having hurt someone’s feelings or sentiments — religious or otherwise — is an antiquated notion that has no place in an increasingly plural and divided world. To refer to an outdated UK law on blasphemy — without mentioning that it has since been repealed1 — and to advocate, therefore, that we should adopt that abandoned standard in India does singular disservice to cardinal freedoms. There is much to offend everyone everywhere, on the internet, in print, on television, and none of it is illegal. One could easily make allegations of vulgarity and obscenity against every ‘item number’ in every film or contend that our saas-bahu television soaps are nothing but emotional pornography, constantly regurgitated. Should they be banned because they ‘offend’ some sensibility somewhere? Yet our laws permit the filing of complaints, however frivolous, on the ground of injured feelings. This is, again, an assault on free speech and on the right to express an idea, made worse by the glacial grinding of our judicial system. Does free speech include the right to steal? No. Does it include the right to offend? Short answer: yes. Should the ban on importation of The Satanic Verses be lifted? Certainly. Those who are offended by it are entitled to write and rail against it. They may destroy their own copies of it; or they may just choose to read something else. But nothing justifies a small group of fundamentalists forcing the government to dictate what everyone else can and cannot read, write, think and see. If there is one thing free speech and the internet demand it is a thicker hide. That means less policing, not more, and more tolerance, not less.
For many of us, free speech is as much a faith as any formal religion, and every ban is an affront to that faith. The difference is that we do not advocate violence in the protection of our belief, nor do we deny to anyone the right to criticise and condemn; for to those of us who believe in free speech, every text is sacred.
In America, there is a [furore over SOPA], the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress, and its sister law in the US Senate, PIPA or Protect IP Act. [Google], [Wikipedia], the [Electronic Frontier Foundation] and Wired protest. In India, [Kapil Sibal leans on a slew of intermediaries and social networks] to censor user content, ostensibly to prevent libel and blasphemy. A short while later, making its mind known much too early, a [court demands that 21 websites do] the same. At the Jaipur Literary Festival, a gaggle of Rip Van Winkle [fundamentalists threaten writers] over an issue 24 years old.
: http://www.scribd.com/doc/75153093/Tribe-Legis-Memo-on-SOPA-12-6-11-1 "SOPA violates the first amendment, Lawrence Tribe"
: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/18/sopa-pipa-google-logo-doodle_n_1212187.html "SOPA, PIPA: Google 'Censors' Logo To Protest Anti-Piracy Bills"
: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SOPA_initiative/Learn_more "Wikipedia on SOPA"
: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/01/how-pipa-and-sopa-violate-white-house-principles-supporting-free-speech "EFF: How PIPA and SOPA violate White House principles supporting free speech"
: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/internet-censorship-defamation-kapil-sibal-congress-sonia/1/168984.html "Don't try to play big brother, Rajeev Dhavan, India Today, 16 January 2012"
: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-12-22/social-media/30546620_1_social-networking-sites-objectionable-content-websites "Take off offensive content, court tells social websites, Times of India, 22 December 2011"
: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/01/rushdie-non-grata.html?currentPage=all "Rushdie Non Grata, David Remnick, New Yorker, 24 January 2012"