Twitter vs Centre: If Dorsey is right, so is Mr. Prasad

We believe a ‘free’ forum for ventilation for all is speech freedom. But social media platforms have effectively devalued free speech. It is like a hall full of screaming people. Everybody is saying something, no one is listening.

Jack Dorsey
Late last week, the fight between Ravi Shankar Prasad and Dorsey picked up steam as Twitter suspended for an hour or so the minister's Twitter handle. Pic: Vijay Verma/PTIic:

Before Twitter (started in 2006, when UPA dispensation was underway) and Facebook (2004), Indians and the rest of the world did not know they had so much to say. They may have spoken less, but they, in fact, lived better.

In real terms, our life indices have slipped. In UPA years, for instance, from rank 94 on the Human Freedom Index, we have slipped to 111, and 79 to 121 on the Global Economic Freedom Index. But more than ever, we speak. Logorrhea is a pandemic we don’t want to invent a vaccine for. In fact, we think the affliction is a wonder-cure.

We don’t yet know if there is a direct connection between the compulsive need to ventilate and general economic and other kinds of unhappiness; that if we talk more, we may actually suffer more mentally and materially. For obvious reasons, the Liberals are particularly vulnerable to free speech affliction. Remember William Burroughs saying the language is a virus? He probably had the Indian liberal in mind.

The fact is that India generally has been on a slippery slope even as we talk more. In India, Twitter, a free speech platform, has 17.5 million users, contributing substantially to the personal wealth of Jack Dorsey (the founder and the CEO of Twitter): about US$5 billion. We know now that as we – and Dorsey– fight for our free speech rights, Dorsey is also getting richer with each of our mostly unnecessary and interminable words.


Also read: Centre gives Twitter ‘one last notice’ to comply with new IT rules

The fight now between Twitter and the Union Government of India, represented in the person of Union IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, is apparently over the non-compliance of Indian norms, which insist that Twitter, employing across the world over 5,500 employees, has not in place an officer for compliance, another for addressing user grievances, and a third for round-the-clock coordination with law enforcement agencies.

The government also said Twitter should remove content that the government objected to within 36 hours.

Twitter’s position is that these measures will curtail India’s free speech. That an MNC is fighting for a poor, self-delusional, country’s right to freedom of expression has not affected the fervour with which the Left and the Liberals have greeted their imperialist capitalist champion; clearly, such ironies are too obvious to merit attention.

Late last week, the fight between Ravi Shankar Prasad and Dorsey picked up steam as Twitter suspended for an hour or so the minister’s Twitter handle, on account of the minister’s tweet from December 2017. He had tagged music composer AR Rehman’s ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’ video, while writing about India’s 1971 victory over Pakistan. The video, according to Twitter, violated copyright laws after there was a complaint to this effect.

Of late, the minister had been tweeting his government’s admonitory position in regard to Twitter, with links to his TV debates. It was in this context that Twitter reminded him, belatedly, who was the boss: “Twitter denied access to my account for almost an hour on the alleged ground that there was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of the USA and subsequently they allowed me to access the account,” Prasad tweeted.

Later, Shashi Tharoor, Parliamentary IT Committee chairman, said he too had been recently locked out of his Twitter account. Tharoor’s tweet had a clip of the song ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’ ( a song from another millennium, by Boney M, whose philosophy surely would not permit censorship of any kind). This was objected to by the same Digital Media Copy Rights Agency (DMCRA).

That we have Ravi Shankar’s nationalist pontifications on media as material for a US official copyrights objection as is the anarchic tale of Rasputin, (… ‘but to Moscow chicks, he was such a lovely dear…lover of the Russian queen, Russia’s greatest Love Machine…’)  that Tharoor linked to his tweets can only mean that it is not just content that Twitter objects to, but also intentions.

Also read: Stop beating around the bush, follow IT rules: Centre tells Twitter

Remember, when in April, two medical students from Kerala danced to the ‘Rasputin’ song in their college corridor, and the clip went viral like a virus? As far as this writer can recall, the DMCA had no problem with that incident.

The point, of course, is not copyrights. If the DMCA could object and censor or delete accounts on the ground of their notions of ethics or intellectual property rights, Ravi Shankar Prasad’s argument that Jack Dorsey complies with the Indian government’s conditions is equally valid.

The old rule holds good: our free speech is always someone else’s bank balance. Philosophers like Herbert Marcuse (author of the prescient ‘One Dimensional Man’) cautioned against the industrial society creating ‘false needs’ to perpetuate the people’s dependency on it, like an addiction. He recommended ‘negative thinking’ as a way to break out of that integrationist choke-hold.

The informational society that we have come to live in is even more deceptive and hallucinatory than the industrial one of the 60s. We actually hallucinate normality. We believe that a ‘free’ forum for ventilation for all is speech freedom. In fact, social media platforms have effectively devalued free speech. It is like a hall full of screaming people. Everybody is saying something, no one is listening.

And the guys, like Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg, who own the hall make their billions backstage.

The Indian government is seeking more power to control that illusion. Men like Dorsey and Zuckerberg would naturally like to retain their dominance for obvious reasons. Either way, the Indian users of FB and Twitter would have no escape from the process of integration (with the exploitative social and production system that Marcuse cautioned against) that either ideology – capitalist-imperialist, or nationalist-right-wing –seek to perpetuate. The Indian Liberal remains deluded as ever. He/she is just not negative enough. And try to compensate for it by positively speaking too much.

(CP Surendran’s novel, One Love, And The Many Lives of Osip B, is scheduled to hit the shops end of July).

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal).