02 April 2007

Information and accountability

Somewhere in my old family home in Kolkata, there is a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, bought in the seventies, in which certain sections have been ‘rubber-stamped off’ by the Indian government. These sections contain information about India from a political point of view, specifically on Kashmir and the border between India and Pakistan (including maps). The rubber stamp says something like “the information contained here is under dispute by the Government of India” and is, therefore, not to be trusted.

My initial reaction to this was anger at the government’s censorship of information in a democracy like India (apart from the disgust at seeing a beautifully-printed and expensive book messed up by purple non-erasable ink). I believed, then, the Indian government had violated one of the basic tenets in its own Constitution. It was only later, when I grew older, that I saw some sense in the government’s decision to apply this method of censorship. I realised that, along with information, comes accountability.

I believe, the providers of information are accountable for the accuracy, appropriateness and relevance of the information they provide us, whether they like it or not. It’s a serious responsibility; one that should not be played around with as I see it being done in the social news sites (like Digg, Reddit, Netscape, among others) which have cropped up, particularly with the advent of Web 2.0. Just because a news story is voted to be popular is not an indication of its accuracy.

Mind you, this is not about violating the freedom of speech. By all means, anyone can publish whatever they want, as long as they don’t violate any laws of the country they belong to. But, news needs to be reported and edited by competent (and impartial) journalists and editors. Not by citizens at large who may not know the facts of the matter, and yet, vote for a story because they simply liked it. Popularity of inaccurate news (and information) can be a dangerous thing!

No comments: