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‘Any Normal Human Being Would Be Offended’

by Prasad Krishna last modified Dec 06, 2011 01:11 PM
The Indian government has asked social media operators to delete information on the Internet that might offend the ‘‘sensibilities’’ of people in India, Kapil Sibal, India’s minister of communications and information technology, said Tuesday, confirming an earlier India Ink report.
‘Any Normal Human Being Would Be Offended’

Kapil Sibal, Telecommunications and Human Resources Development Minister addressed a press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday.

"We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people," Mr. Sibal told more  than 100 reporters during a press conference on the lawn at his home in New Delhi.  ‘‘Cultural ethos is very important to  us."

He denied such a demand was censorship.

There is some content on the Internet  that ‘‘any normal human being would be offended by,’’ he said. The government has asked social media companies  to develop a way to eliminate offensive  content as soon as it is created, no matter what country it is created in, he  said.

The news conference was called in response to an India Ink blog post Monday about private meetings with  executives from Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft, in which Mr. Sibal  asked the companies to prescreen content in India before it is posted. The idea caused an outpouring of criticism for  Mr. Sibal on social media sites in India on Monday night that intensified after the press conference on Tuesday.

Industry analysts and activists deemed it unrealistic and unconstitutional.

"It is technically impossible and places unconstitutional limits on the  freedom of expression in India," said  Sunil Abraham, the executive director  of the Center for Internet and Society,  a research group based in Bangalore,  India. "Shutting the Internet hasn’t  worked in China or Saudi Arabia, and it  won’t work in India," he said.

India now has an estimated 100 million Internet users, the fourth largest  online population in the world behind  China, the United States and Japan, and  over 25 million Facebook users. Those  figures are well behind India’s  850 million registered mobile phone users, but Internet  use is expected to mushroom in coming  years as inexpensive tablet computers  enter the market.

Facebook was the only company to  reply publicly Tuesday. "We will remove any content that violates our  terms, which are designed to keep material that is hateful, threatening, incites  violence or contains nudity off the service," the company said in a statement.

In recent months, the Indian government held several meetings with social  media companies, and asked them to  develop a ‘‘mechanism’’ to screen out  offensive content, Mr. Sibal said. So far, he said, these companies have been uncooperative.

Mr. Sibal declined to define what, exactly, was offensive content, but said he  had found on the Internet "subject matter which was so offensive that it hurt  the religious sentiments of large sections of the community."

Before the news conference, he  showed examples of that content to  some journalists, who described it as  pornography combined with images of  Mecca and Hindu gods. Mr. Sibal also said there were images of Congress party personnel that were "ex facie objectionable."

The Indian government has been tightening the leash on Internet freedom, and in April issued rules demanding demanding Internet service providers delete information posted on Web sites that officials or private citizens deemed disparaging or harassing. Last year, the government threatened to shut down BlackBerry service in the country unless the smartphones’ manufacturer, Research In Motion, allowed government officials greater access to users’ messages.

In a meeting Monday, executives from social media companies told Mr. Sibal they believed that American law applies to them, not the Indian government’s rules issued in April.

"Even if U.S. law applies, the community standards of India have to be taken into account," Mr. Sibal said. "We will not allow Internet companies to throw up their hands and say, ‘We cannot do anything about it."

Regulation of the Internet, particularly across country boundaries, remains a murky and hard-to-define area, said Mr. Abraham of the Center for Internet and Society. "Indian law seems to state that it has global jurisdiction," he said, "but that is not really true. An Indian court might give an order that is unenforceable in the United States or anywhere else," he said.

This article by Heather Timmons was published in the New York Times on December 6,  2011. Sunil Abraham has been quoted in this article. Read the original story here.

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