The internet has given a bizarre twist to the story of human freedom. There seems to be no secure line between the thrill of limitless possibilities and the frightening sense of things getting out of hand. What emerges is an impossible tangle of ethical, legal and political issues. Microsoft Network will soon be shutting down its free chatrooms for users in the United Kingdom, Europe, South America and parts of Asia, including India. This is the first time that a transnational service provider will deliberately draw in the worldwide web. The reason given for this is fundamentally moral, although it has been noted that MSN makes very little money from its international chatrooms anyway. But the problem will have to be addressed squarely. Nothing less than the sexual abuse of minors is the issue here. Lurking in these chatrooms are dangerous people, who are part of a vast, global network of criminals, the almost unmanageable spread of which is now being gradually revealed. Policing this limitless cyberworld of slippery identities and virtual anonymity is proving to be expensive for service providers and daunting for lawkeepers all over the world. Sexual crime and terrorism are two very different phenomena, but they operate within the same technological infrastructure, and pose similar practical and ethical problems of security.
Yet organized paedophilia confronts the libertarian with a difficult moral absolute. Any notion of total freedom will therefore have to be carefully reconsidered, but keeping in mind the pitfalls of such policing. This will always be difficult to achieve, and sustaining it can, and should, never be solely the task of the state. In India the problem is double-edged. On the one hand, child sexual abuse remains a largely invisible phenomenon, and there is no reason to assume that it is any less widespread than in Europe. So awareness and prevention will have to be stepped up relentlessly. On the other hand, the Indian state’s attitude to moral policing is far from reassuring. Censorship — moral, cultural and political — has often taken, and continues to take, highly regressive forms in the hands of the Centre. The government censors documentary films, shuts down politically dissenting cybergroups, intervenes regularly in sexual health programmes and continues to regard homosexuals as criminals. This is certainly not the best profile for the ideal censor. The policing and censorship of something as pervasive as the internet should face, uncompromisingly, their toughest challenges. But they should also remain firmly within the public domain of discussion and debate in the Indian democracy.