Monday, May 28, 2012

Fahrenheit 2012

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

The streets of the internet filled with rumours. The news went viral faster than a video of a cat bungee jumping over the Potomac River while lip-synching to that irritating Carly Rae Jepsen song. The internet service providers in India were on a blocking spree again. Their actions brought various opposite camps on twitter together in their disgust and paranoia. The message the twittersphere wanted to send to the powers-that-be was clear: Steal our tax money and generally wreck up things to make our life harder, but don’t you dare try to take away our right to download free stuff from the internet or we’re going to HULK SMASH our keyboard and protest against internet censorship by posting things on the internet. And the powers-that-be did what they always do whenever legitimate users of something complain that their rights are being infringed upon - ignore them.

One of the parties involved in this iteration of block-a-mole has used the internet very successfully to create a buzz around their movie through a viral video. Now the producers of that very movie have turned on the very people who made them famous. Though they are not the only ones to do that. A large number of corporate entities try to clamp down on the internet by claiming that their forthcoming big-budget movie is allegedly being pirated online. They think that the reason people don’t want to see their movies is because they are pirating it on the internet. Not because they make terrible movies that have no stories but are just scenes of things put together haphazardly based on a focus group of one. Even though most people will not see these movies even if you paid them money, but, yeah, let’s pretend that the internet is the problem.

They keep trying to fight the internet instead of embracing it. If you make it easy for users to access your content, they would not need to pirate it. Trying to block torrent sites on the internet is like sending a hundred year old tortoise to catch the energizer bunny. Not only were they not able to achieve what they set out to do, in their haste, the movie producers even had the ISPs block, websites which had nothing to do with piracy. For example, they blocked Pastebin, a website whose sole function is to allow users on the internet to share pasted text, and Vimeo, a website which mostly contains time lapse videos of the remaining five picturesque locations on earth and indie movies made with such an austere budget that even P. Sainath would approve. By blocking these websites, they are actually hurting the people who want to showcase legitimate content.

In the end all the parties involved in this orgy of ignorance and ineptitude passed the blame for this to one another. The government could proudly claim that after a long time, it was relieved to not be the one trying to trample on its citizens rights. All we did was make these arbitrary and vague rules which can be willingly exploited by anyone to censor things they don’t want you to see. Don’t blame us! The corporate entities which sought to block the websites simply shrugged in response. We just cynically used our corporate heft to censor things that might hurt our business. Who is going to stop us? You? Or those government institutions who are so deeply embedded inside our ass that they can taste what we had for lunch?  And the internet service providers - who used this opportunity to block popular torrent and video sites to preserve their precious bandwidth - not only acted like they did not understand the court order and instead of blocking specific URL’s, blocked complete websites, and as of the time of writing this column, they were still pretending that they didn’t really understand how to completely unblock them. Sorry, court order! Our hands are tied behind our backs, giving you the finger. Meanwhile, the regulators responsible for protecting the consumers were AWOL as usual. Wait, are you talking to us? Are we supposed to do something in such a situation? Let us think about that for a while and come back to you with a whitepaper in 3 to 5 years. Hope that helps!

The internet is a problem for a lot of powerful groups in this country. Various governments and government institutions are unable to fathom the freedom of expression the internet offers. It is hard for them to accept the existence of a medium of communication which they cannot bully, cajole, or bribe into submission. Most politicians do not view the internet as a tool which can empower their citizens; rather they think of the internet as just another part of the vast conspiracy to destroy them. Instead of embracing it at every level, they resist it like white blood cells resist an infection. Corporate India does not like the internet because they can’t buy off all internet users by sending them on junkets or paying their child’s school fees. And the entertainment industry does not like the internet because it is full of “h8trz” who are “hatin” on them all the time. How can you allow a place where celebrities are not treated with the love and respect they deserve to exist? Sounds spooky, like something out of the Twilight Zone

On the bright side, at least they let us armchair critics feel like martyrs.

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