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India internet: clean-up or censorship?

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jan 16, 2012 11:17 AM
Is India going the way of China? Not when it comes to development indicators. Or enhanced infrastructure. Or economic power. But in another category at which Beijing excels: web censorship.

That was the implication of a ruling on Thursday from Justice Suresh Kait, of the Delhi High Court, who told lawyers for Facebook India and Google India that unless they develop mechanisms to regulate “offensive and objectionable” material on their web sites, India is prepared to take drastic measures, according to the Hindustan Times. “Like China, we will block all such websites,” Kalit declared.

According to the IBN news channel, the government seems to be moving to make good on those threats:

Government sources said on Friday that the Delhi High Court was likely to issue sanctions to prosecute social networking sites Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo India in the ongoing spat between the companies and the Government of India over content regulation.

“Prosecution for some of the non-bailable offences requires prior sanction of the government, which has been sought and it is likely to be granted,” the sources said.

[…]

Summons are to be sent to the companies through the Ministry of External Affairs directing their heads to appear before court on March 13, which is when the next hearing will take place. The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology will file its affidavit by this evening.

Clearly there’s trouble in “the world’s largest democracy”.

Kalit’s pronouncement is the latest turn in a story that broke last month, when the New York Times reported that telecoms minister Kapil Sibal had met with executives from Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft to discuss the pre-emptive removal of “offensive material” – including, it seems, web pages that had criticized the leader of his party, Sonia Gandhi.

As beyondbrics reported, Sibal then gave a combative press conference where he said: “I believe that no reasonable person aware of the sensibilities of large sections of communities in this country and aware of community standards as they are applicable in India would wish to see this content in the public domain,” referring to “offensive material” he had shown some reporters prior to the conference.

He added, repeatedly, that the government did not believe in censorship.

Apparently, Kalit didn’t get the memo.

Lawyers for the internet giants appeared before the judge to request the dismissal of a criminal complaint filed by a private citizen in a lower court under sections of the Indian law that cover “sale of obscene books etc”, “sale of obscene objects to young person etc” and “criminal conspiracy”. The judge declined.

“The magistrate of the trial court had observed that the material submitted by the complainant contained obscene pictures and derogatory articles pertaining to various Hindu gods, Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ”, IBN reported.

According to the Hindustan Times:

On behalf of Google India, senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi said it was humanly not possible to filter or monitor the postings of obscene, objectionable and defamatory material. “Billions of people across the globe, post their articles on the website. Yes, they may be defamatory, obscene but cannot be checked,” he said.

A Google spokesperson issued a statement last night, saying, “We did file a petition before the Delhi High Court. The Court has now issued a notice to the petitioner. We can’t comment at this stage.”

Today, the company issued a clarification:

Today the Court has merely directed the petitioner to serve the Court order to the overseas entities at their respective addresses and has adjourned the matter to March 13th.

Last month, a lower court had ordered the sites to remove all “anti-social” or “anti-relgious” content by February 6.

As Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet & Society, told beyondbrics last month, it’s difficult to establish exactly what is anti-religious: for example, the Hindu profession of belief in multiple gods is blasphemous to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

A lower court had directed the central government to take “immediate appropriate steps” and file a report by January 13.

It has not been released yet, but later on Friday you can Google it. Take the opportunity – if India goes the way of China, it might prove more difficult in future.

This blog post by Neil Munshi was published in beyondbrics on 13 January 2012

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