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Digital Swaraj

AUTHOR: Prabhav Sharma

(Student at Bhavan Vidyalaya School, Chandigarh)

Two years back my best friend used to live four blocks off the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan. Today, he lives four miles off my house in the tiny district of Panchkula, India. A lot has changed for him over the past two years. One glaringly obvious change has been the internet. He once told me that Google India and Google US showed dissimilar results when he searched “terrorism.” These are not two different search engines of opposing authoritarian regimes in an intensively bipolar world. These are two sub-units of the world’s most popular search engine catering to the two largest democracies of the world showing different results for a word which desolates each and every one of us.

In this scenario, internet regulation is a tool used by the ‘digitally powerful’ to geographically segregate ‘netizens’ even though the raison d’ etre of this virtual leviathan is to connect. Furthermore, the power to regulate in the hands of a few can exacerbate this segregation. This is against our ethical responsibility towards the internet.

An ethical responsibility, according to me, is a carefully balanced structure of moral and prudential responsibility. Morals are standards of behaviour with prescribed do’s and don’ts. Prudence refers to a methodical analysis based on a careful calculation of losses and gains. In this essay, I would be pointing out the incompatibility between internet regulation and our ethical responsibilities due to lack of moral and prudential applicability of the former which is affected by the kind of society we live in.

In the status quo, democratic ideals are ubiquitous in principle. Therefore, fulfilling our democratic duties is central to performing our ethical responsibilities towards this virtual leviathan. And our biggest democratic responsibility is ensuring universal freedom devoid of unreasonable restrictions. However, internet regulation is a tool for ‘thought policing’ in the guise of regulating ‘anti-social’ elements.Through his book “1984”, Orwell introduced the concept of thought policing as a method of establishing acute control in a dystopian society. Therefore, internet regulation implies swapping of freedoms for our ‘security.’ And challenging this state of unfreedom is an essential democratic and ethical realization. This state of ‘unfreedom’ was lately taken on by the High Court of Kerala (India) when it declared the Right to Access unregulated internet as an essential component of Right to Life and Personal Liberty, Right to Privacy and Right to Education.

The second major characteristic of the status quo is intensive economic stratification. According to the Oxfam Report (2019), the richest 26 people on the planet have the same economic might as the poorest half of the population, some 3.8 billion people. Internet regulation by any entity in such a highly stratified world would divide the ‘netizens’ into ‘digital bourgeoisie and proletariats.’ An analogy between a classic industrial factory in a capitalist society and the internet would be apt to prove this statement. The ability to regulate a factory granted the ‘haves’ the power to regulate capital in order to exercise control over the ‘have nots.’ Similarly, internet regulation by the ‘digital haves’ would grant them the power to regulate information to exercise control over the ‘digital have nots.’

The next constructive can be analysed with an example of a movie, “V for Vendetta.” This movie ends with the overthrowing of a totalitarian government in a futuristic dystopian British society. However, no one knows what happens the day after the revolution. Ultimately, if we consider internet regulation to be our ethical responsibility we are vicariously liable for its misuse by anyone in any form. Therefore, the idea of a ‘digital revolution’ is attractive but it lacks ethical applicability from a consequentialist point of view.

One notable consequence of internet regulation would be the lack of public discussions and deliberations. The use of Christian ethnocentrism over cultural relativism is an example of lack of ideological interaction leading to social polarization.

The second consequence is the ‘manufacturing of consent.’ According to this idea propounded by Noam Chomsky, media is an instrument which can be used to generate public conformity. Therefore, its entente with the state, government or any powerful entity is deemed to be catastrophic as seen in the Chinese model of internet regulation where the Chinese firewalls are no different to the Great Wall.

The last consequence is the suppression of dissenting opinions and subsequent resistance to social change. Every mass movement over the past decade like the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, the #MeToo movement, the overthrowing of Victor Yanukovych, recent protests in Hong Kong and the ongoing battle against climate change has been influencing because of free and unregulated social media. According to JS Mill, there are four reasons why freedom of expression is essential for those dissenters who espouse ideas that appear ‘false’ or misleading today. Firstly, no idea is completely false. Each idea has an element of truth. If we ban the ‘false’ ideas we would lose the element of truth that they contain. Secondly, truth does not emerge by itself. It is only through an interaction between opposing views that truth emerges. Thirdly, truth always runs the risk of being reduced to an unthinkable cliché. It is only when we expose it to opposing views that we can be sure that an idea is trustworthy. Lastly, we cannot be sure if what we consider true is actually true or not. Very often ideas considered ‘false’ at one time by the society were suppressed. However, they turned out to be ‘true’ later on. For example, not long ago, the idea of gender equality seemed preposterous. However, today it is a widely accepted ideal. Therefore, ‘regulation’ in the guise of suppressing dissenting opinions through acute censorship is anti-thetical to our ethical responsibility to strive for social change.

This idea paves the way for a greater criticism of the culture of banning. Growing intolerance towards ‘alien’ ideas and cultures has meant an increase in the role of banning in regulation by a superior entity. However, such a policy of banning is not in coherence with our ethical responsibilities. We have a cardinal ethical responsibility to generate social change rather than get subjugated by it. However, the act of banning by a ‘supreme’ entity compromises the value of a netizen’s will. Additionally, banning has never been responsible for bringing social change but has instead created social compulsions. Social change has been the outcome of mind-set changes. For instance, the propensity of racism didn’t decrease because of its constitutional banning but because of ideological evolution. Another reservation with banning, in particular the internet, is its anti-thetical nature. Banning is meant to exercise control. However, it instead reduces the ability to exercise control over the ‘illegal’ components of the society and the internet. For instance, even though child pornography is banned in most countries however its viewership is at an all-time high. Similarly, banning the dark web has not led to us being able to exercise control over it. Therefore banning based on collective social sanctions is preferable as compared to legal sanctions should be the ultimate goal.  

In order to ensure that this ‘virtual leviathan’ is “of the people, by the people and for the people,” it is of paramount importance to understand Gandhian Swaraj. The term Swaraj incorporates within it two words – Swa (self) and Raj (rule). It can be understood to mean both rule of the self and rule over self. In his book Hind Swaraj, Mahatma Gandhi noted that Swaraj is not just freedom but liberation in redeeming one’s self-respect, self-responsibility and capacities for self-realization from institutions of dehumanization. An example of such a digital initiative is fact checking. In this scenario, common internet users took upon themselves the responsibility to prevent the spreading of misinformation and disinformation by keeping a check on fake news. Such self-regulation is a more viable option as compared to regulation by a superior entity. The relevance of this idea is at an all-time high due to widespread technological developments at a break neck pace. With the advent of ‘deep fake,’ Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT), creation of a regulatory paradigm based on equality is implausible.

I would conclude that instead of regulating the internet to send a message, a self-regulated life of an ethically responsible ‘netizen’ should be a message in itself. To quote Buddha,

“It is better to conquer yourself

than to win a thousand battles.

Then the victory is yours.

It cannot be taken away from you,

Not by angels or by demons,

Heaven or hell.”

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