The discussion between Sachin Pilot and Ben Hammersley at the session titled The Republic of Technology, moderated by Shoma Chaudhury, has arguably been the most absorbing, certainly the most contentious session at THiNK 2012 so far. Hammersley, a sort of all-purpose point person for things Internet (journalist, author, consultant to Britain’s Foreign Office), provided a strong, lucid defence of Internet freedom. He separates the world into those whose “intellectual development” came before the Internet and those after, 1990 being year zero.
Given the age of most politicians, coporate leaders, people in positions of power, “we have entrusted our future,” Hammersely said to laughter and applause, “to people who are confused by the present.” He explained, as the conversation turned towards unacceptable speech on the Internet and recent controversies including the government’s much criticised attempt to shut down certain blogs and Twitter accounts, that “by design, by the fundamental architecture of the Internet, it is impossible to censor content and remain a democracy.”
Pilot made a impassioned and, again, much applauded rejoinder, accepting the impossibility and undesirability of censoring the Internet but pointing out that the government has a responsibility to all the people, including those with no access to technology whose lives are adversely affected by it. He reiterated the government’s position of greater participation in ICANN, the organisation that controls domain names, by a wider range of stakeholders. Pilot made a sharp point about the levels of compliance with India’s requests to remove offensive content from the web being only about 20 percent of compliance with similar requests from the goverments of more developed countries.
Pilot was generally on shakier ground, though, particularly given the government’s touchy responses to criticism and cack-handed attempts at controlling content it finds offensive. Hammersley’s description of ICANN as the “least likely people to be told what to do by the US government” was a little pat but it was hard not to agree with his accusation that governments would rather blame the Internet than take responsibility. Shoma Chaudhury closed the discussion by saying that “too often governments cave in to people’s sentiment,” that “offense is a problematic zone in India”, even that the constitution needed to be changed in order to protect our freedoms from the thin-skinned, those ever ready to take umbrage.