What would you do if the US Government shut down the entire text messaging system for all business users who wanted to send out more than five texts at one time? Think it would never happen? Well, not right now in the States, but for the past several weeks this is the case in India. The government feared that hate speech was being transmitted via SMS and also shut down several Twitter users and websites as well. When people complained, they changed the ban from five to 20 concurrent texts, but as far as I know, the ban is still in place.
As I read these reports over the last week, I got chills running up my back. And India is supposedly the world’s largest democracy. With close to a billion cell phone users, it probably has more technology in one place than perhaps anywhere else. The stakes are high.
In July, “some multimedia messages and websites contained video footage purposely doctored to incite violence. In some cases, altered archival video was portrayed as contemporary footage from the northeast [of India]”, according to the IEEE Spectrum. The messages led to a mass exodus from the northeast as people panicked, thinking the violence was more widespread than it was.
The ban was for all commercial texts that had 5 (or 20) recipients: individuals’ texts weren’t part of the ban but were limited to sending no more than 25 KB of data through their mobile phones. The Indian government has done this before two years ago, facing similar domestic unrest.
We Americans tend to take for granted our freedoms of speech and freedoms of electronics. Most of us can access the Internet freely at home and at work, and at any number of places in between: libraries, coffee shops, even the jury assembly room where I am sitting right now typing this out in downtown St. Louis. We expect that our Internet access isn’t filtered or blocked, and that we can say what we want when we want with whatever device we choose to use.
And certainly it would take a lot of work to censor the Internet in the USA: there are numerous ISPs and redundant pathways that would have to be taken care of to truly isolate or block someone or something, and then chances are someone else would find a work-around, such as any number of data to SMS services that have been around for several years (Google has one, for example). Senator Lieberman had this crazy idea several years ago for a simple Internet kill switch: it was nothing more than political rhetoric and he later backed away from the characterization, although still insisting that the government needed a way to turn off parts of the Internet during crises.
There will always be bad actors using the Interwebs, and have been since its invention and early use. We need to be more skeptical when getting texts, emails, and Facebook requests and ensure that what is being said is accurate before we pass it along to our own chain of contacts.