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Free speech online gives schools and colleges the jitters

March 20, 2007

A certain paranoia over internet usage (and the resulting free speech it brings along with it) has gripped India. This is affecting students from participating in meeting places on the internet like Orkut as well as writing blogs. Recently, the Bombay Scottish school in Mumbai called the cops when students (some of them ex-students) aired their hostile feelings towards the school principal on Orkut. Something similar was reported in MMK College in Juhu. Students were generally letting off steam about the principal/faculty but when it came to light there was a huge uproar.

In India, school and college principals are more or less demi-gods. Most principals are so authoritarian that there is no healthy mechanism to air grievances. Many of the heads of educational institutions become extremely arrogant because of the shortage of seats in their institutes. From politicians to anyone who has a fat wallet, these guys are wooed and cajoled and at times simply pressured to allot seats. It is a common ocurrence in India for college principals to go on mysterious leave when admission time nears. But this high demand for seats gives a lot of clout to the heads of the institutes. And as in India we have more or less a hierarchical society, those in ‘power’ rarely know what the students (and yes teachers as well) actually think of them. Seeing themselves abused on the internet can be quite a shock. This has resulted in some educational institutes actually banning their students from joining community portals like Orkut. And even writing blogs!

Recently a young blogger friend of mine who is studying for his MBA informed me regretfully that he had to shut down his blog because the institute where he is studying banned has students from keeping blogs and from joining platforms like Orkut. This is taking the distrust of the internet too far! I have read about similar such incidents in the newspapers but this was the first time that someone I knew had experienced it. This guy had started a blog to improve and hone his creative writing skills, not to malign anyone…but a rule was a rule and he had to shut down his blog. Educational institutions are laying down rules as if they have state secrets to protect! The real reason is ofcourse that they cannot tolerate even a word of criticism.

And there are some institutes who are restricting access to the internet ostensibly to protect students from the ill-effects of staying up late at night! And none other than the prestigious IIT Mumbai has done this. It has banned students from accessing the internet at night, not just to give the students a good nights sleep, but also to reduce ‘depression’ and ‘lonliness’!

IIT Bombay banned internet use in its 13 student hostels from 11.30pm to 12.30pm from the start of this week, according to university officials. They said that an alarming number of its 5,000 students had become addicted to gaming, blogging, file-sharing and online movies and were showing up late for classes or sleeping through them…If we can say that imposing a ban on alcohol, banned substances and tobacco is right, why make a hype about constraining the use of internet which is becoming addiction in itself?…the death of Vijay Nukala, a 22-year-old IIT Bombay physics student who hanged himself in his hostel room in 2005, has been linked to excessive computer use. Several other IITs are now considering similar bans and other measures to lure students away from their computers.Not that I am condoning slander or vulgarity of any sort. People should be careful of what they write. As a journalist I was trained to think twice and thrice before I wrote anything about anyone as newspapers can be sued, and that is why as a blogger I tend to be restrained. But the bloggers and writers of messages today on the internet have never been trained for this…they have no idea of the repercussions of what they are doing.

I always thought that it was loneliness that made students spend hours on the internet and not the other way round. In fact chatting on the net can alleviate some of the lonliness. Well, I am not a psychiatrist or an expert on the adverse effects of the internet. Maybe too much dependence on the internet does affect a person’s social life but it is the curtailing of freedom and bans that I don’t like.

In any case it is completely against international trends. That is why I think that this restriction cannot last. In fact the world over it has been accepted that the benefits of the internet far outweighs its problems. So while top schools in the US and UK are fighting hard to give higher bandwidth to students we in India are going backwards! First with stupid censorship and then moral policing!

When it comes to hate messages, ofcourse they are bad. But principals could take these messages as a sign of a lack of a proper grievance mechanism in their institute. Imposing bans on blogs or calling the cops is extreme. In any case many students do not know that writing bad stuff about people can land them in trouble. As journalists we are taught to be careful before writing anything about anyone…but students do not know. They will find out…but imposing bans is a bad idea.

Well, with so many complaints by those who have been ‘defamed’ – the police have got their act together. Orkut has reached an agreement with police in India and this agreement makes it pretty simple for the police to track down anyone who posts objectional or defamatory content.

Well, as long as its just defamatory content. And not criticism. Students have every right to criticise the faculty and the principal. And students also have every right to stay up at night and surf the net! If they get bad grades as a result, well…they will suffer the consequences.

Update, 2nd May: Its finally done. The Mumbai Cyber Crime Cell has reached an agreement with Orkut so that Orkut will not only block communities which defame people, but also provide IP addresses of those who indulge in mudslinging. Well, as long as Orkut uses its discretion, I guess its fine. Some people do use foul language on the internet and tend to write unsubstantiated stuff. But Orkut needs to be judicious and only give the IP addresses of those who use sick language and write hate speech. Just students letting off steam against the faculty should not fall into this category. But I guess its difficult to draw the line, and this difficulty could make Orkut ban just about everything! Well, time will tell.

Related Reading: Indian parents are scared of the school authorities
Cyber Crime – the most common cyber crime
The Dark side of the Internet
People don’t worry much about what they say online, even about themselves

6 Comments leave one →
  1. soorajrox permalink
    March 20, 2007 10:41 am

    “When it comes to hate messages, ofcourse they are bad. But principals could take these messages as a sign of a lack of a proper grievance mechanism in their institute.”
    “Students have every right to criticise the faculty and the principal. And students also have every right to stay up at night and surf the net! If they get bad grades as a result, well…they will suffer the consequences.”

    As I would always say,”Whatever happened to democracy?” I always thought we are lucky to be in a democratic nation. We have the oppurtunity to learn the differences between right and wrong. I think there is not going to be any use if things like these are going to be banned.and btw I don’t understand one fact, how can the orkut give the ip addresses of the ppl to the police? I thought (especially ip addresses) these were supposed be a secret.

  2. March 20, 2007 3:12 pm

    This guy had started a blog to improve and hone his creative writing skills, not to malign anyone…but a rule was a rule and he had to shut down his blog.

    This is infuriating. I really feel for this guy. Usually, people who impose such restrictions have little or no idea how things online work. He could have started a ‘site’ (as opposed to a blog) and passed it off as harmless. The dinosaurs may not have noticed.

  3. March 20, 2007 4:14 pm

    Firstly, one has to understand the reason why students use abusive language for their school/college principals. It is because of the only one reason that there is no accountability of the behavior or decisions of school/college authorities. I myself have been “humiliated” like anything by an IIT Prof. I was threatened that I won’t get any degree and my term is over there at that moment. Professor is the ultimate authority in IITs, no student can dare raise his voice or else suffer the consequences in grades or sacrifice your degree.

    This is the case with not only with IITs, but also with so many other schools and colleges. Banning anything is not a solution, will never be. Its human psychology that the more you use restraining power, the more is the tendency to do that and more is the rage against the person who does the banning.

    Solution if any is to have a proper channel to address these issues that confront each and every student. One should be able to express freely his/her thoughts. Otherwise it just keeps building in the mind into `hate’ and one day when u get to know that there is a medium of blog/orkut through which you can express your `hate’.

  4. March 20, 2007 5:42 pm

    Soorajrox, if Orkut is convinced that a message is defamatory they will give the IP address. That is the agreement now. Ofcourse they will probably do so for serious stuff, but who knows? I mean if you don’t like a particular message and a police officer is your dad or uncle I guess he can force Orkut to part with the information!!

  5. March 20, 2007 11:45 pm

    Nita – it would seem as if expressing dissatisfactions and criticisms of educational experiences, good, indifferent, bad or deporable has merely moved out of the cafeterias, watering holes and student lounges of old and onto the internet. Students have always and will forever make commentary on the specifics of their experiences, only now their complaints or kudos are made more public. Educators ignore opinions of their performance at their peril. Politicians have learned to watch the polls and use them to modify practices and policies if they are smart and want to be in tune with the electorate, and so can educators and their institutions.

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