From Section 66A’s crusade against freedom of speech to how the UID is reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany.

  • 15th Aug 2013
How Technology Is Leveraged To Take Away Your Freedom


Through the annals of history, there hasn’t been an intangible quantity for which as much blood has been shed as freedom, and it continues to flow to this day. Most of us reading this through the air-conditioned comfort of our homes and offices, in all probability, may not experience the gritty and bloody side of the fight for freedom. The struggle, however, never ceases to exist.

It may vary in degrees, but there is always some megalomaniacal entity out there that’s trying to wrest your freedoms away. The place of oppressive governments in this civilised milieu has been taken over by intrusive corporate entities. They enslave us, not through the conventional logic of prison cells and shackles, but by more insidious means of coercion and monopoly.

Described aptly as the bastard child of technology and expression, the internet however had for long been largely left unmolested by the machinations of overzealous governments and greedy corporate entities. That’s mainly because it was, until the turn of the millennium, dismissed as the plaything of geeks living in their parent’s basements.

This pleasant status quo, however, has changed over the past decade. The governments and corporate entities have realised the all-pervading reach and influence of the internet, and the way it has permeated into the pillars of entertainment, economy, and security among other things. With that realisation come ham-fisted attempts to curtail your freedoms, as will be evident from these flagrant examples of these entities trying hard to wrestle with the reach, anonymity, and power of the internet.

Section 66A
The problem with authorities is that they try to quash and silence what they cannot understand, largely because they are afraid of it. If there’s one thing the babudom of this nation fails at more than governance and policy-making, it has to be understanding and enabling technology for the greater good. A legal system that holds dearly on to the vestiges of draconian Victorian laws such as ours has a hard time interpreting and policing something as modern and intangible as the internet.

Section 66A is the best example of the Indian government’s lack of understanding and an almost Orwellian approach to governance. It’s an amendment made last year to the IT Act (2000) that allows the government to prosecute anyone “sending offensive messages by means of a computer resource or a communication device “. Once again, the law is a tragically hilarious transplant of the UK’s Post Office (Amendment) Act, 1935, where the same stipulations are applied to telephonic and telegram communication.

This is hilarious because the Indian bureaucracy has exhibited an abject lack of understanding and common sense in equating a legislation meant for the relatively archaic means of direct communication such as telephone and telegram to something as complex and all-encompassing as the internet. And it’s tragic because the amendment conveniently leaves the interpretation of “offensive messages” ambiguous. It is this lack of clarity that empowers the babus to interpret the law as they deem fit, and in turn employ it as a potent weapon against free speech and to persecute anyone who dares to inconvenience them.

The best example of its misuse was witnessed in the infamous Palghar case, where two young women were arrested for posting and hitting the Like button on a forwarded Wall post containing a critique on the city-wide clampdown that ensued shortly after the death of the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. The amendment sets a dangerous precedent, where the government leverages an abstract interpretation of a flawed and outdated law to impinge upon free speech. Section 66A is one of the biggest threats to democracy modern India has seen.

US Anti-piracy Laws
Be it First World or the Third, the tragic fact remains that governments all over are equally keen on curtailing your freedoms. When major international film studios and music labels decided to clamp down on piracy, they flexed their funding muscles to lobby the US congress for what could be best described as a thermonuclear-grade anti-piracy law meant to wipe all traces of unauthorised copies of movies and music off the face of the internet. However, as all things thermonuclear, the impending fallout would have been massive and catastrophic to the very fabric of the internet.

The bill dubbed SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) was armed with provisions that allowed the government to cull not only content infringing copyrights, but also take down entire websites and domains for hosting the same. This was a dangerous precedent because the existing law provides content hosting entities a safe harbour of sorts, wherein they aren’t held entirely accountable for the actions of their users. This is especially crucial for websites hosting user generated media such as Youtube, Vimeo, and such. SOPA, on the other hand, held these entities liable and put the onus of policing and enforcement upon them—an endeavour that’s nigh impossible considering the volume of content uploaded onto their servers.

If implemented, the law would have punished the majority for the transgressions of a few, thereby killing torrent, file-sharing, and video-sharing websites as we know them. The death of Megaupload and many torrent websites, in addition to the resilience of The Pirate Bay in the face of legal persecution stands testimony to this witch hunt by the film and music labels. In fact, the overarching purview of the SOPA bill would have empowered it to pretty much kill e-commerce as we know it and change the way we use the internet for the worse.

Needless to say, the collective consciousness of the internet across nations and web domains alike rose up against the bill with online as well as offline protests, in addition to large-scale subversive campaigns by the hacktivist group Anonymous against all the businesses that backed and lobbied for the bill. SOPA was scrapped, but like a Hydra, the bill has mutated and regenerated to come back as PIPA, ACTA, and other variants—forever hanging like Damocles’ Sword on the very freedom and integrity of the internet.

Invoking Godwin’s Law
I know it’s too early to pull the reductio ad Hitlerum card, but the Third Reich indeed leveraged technology in its campaign of genocide against the Jews. It was IBM’s technological assistance with the 1933 census that enabled the Reich to identify the Jewish population and thereby confiscate assets and thereafter isolate and nearly annihilate the race. It’s arguable if Hitler would or wouldn’t have been able to target the Jews this effectively if it weren’t for IBM‘s assistance, but the fact is that IBM’s proprietary technology, the Holerith D-11 card-sorting machine, indeed was instrumental in facilitating the identification of Jews leading up to the Holocaust. Of course, we aren’t blaming IBM for the Holocaust itself.

Whether or not you’re amenable to conspiracy theories, this historical fact is all the more terrifying when you consider the ramifications of modern technology, which has permeated into the very fabric of our existence. Every search term entered or website visited is tracked with the means of cookies and by entities such as Google, which in turn read and document your habits and preferences in a database that can always be tapped into later by third-parties such as the government, or worse. With the advent of cheap and miniaturised geolocation-enabling technologies in mobile devices, it’s all the more easy to keep a track of the places you “check in” to. In other words, record and analyse your movements.

The horrors that IBM enabled back then pale in comparison to what’s possible with modern technology. The involvement of former US Intelligence officials with the UID project—a nation-wide endeavour to biometrically profile the population—is as scary as it gets.

So next time somebody tells you that you live in a free world, think again… and think hard!

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