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India Can Restrict 'Objectionable' Web Content under New Rules

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 23, 2011 09:48 AM
Internet sites and service providers in India now have the authority to order the quick deletion of offensive online content – in a move that is causing great concern among free speech proponents. This article by Ed Silverstein was featured in TMCnet Legal on April 27, 2011.

The new rules are called "the Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011" and allow for rejecting content that is found to be objectionable.

"The list of objectionable content is sweeping and includes anything that ‘threatens the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order," reports The New York Times.

The new rules are also more restrictive than prior laws, Sunil Abraham, the executive director for the Centre for Internet and Society, told The New York Times.

The rules require that intermediaries, who include websites like YouTube and Facebook (News - Alert) and companies that host Web sites, remove offensive content within 36 hours, The Times said. There apparently is no appeal process, The Times adds.

"These rules overly favor those who want to clamp down on freedom of expression," Abraham told The Times. "Whenever there are limits of freedom of expression, in order for those limits to be considered constitutionally valid, those limits have to be clear and not be very vague. Many of these rules that seek to place limits are very, very vague."

The Times of India also complained that, "While most of the restrictions in the rules are based on the criminal law (stuff that is blasphemous, obscene, defamatory, paedophilic, etc.), some are so loosely worded that they could easily be misused against netizens accustomed to speaking their mind freely, whether on politics or otherwise."

For example, one prohibition is saying something that would be "insulting" to "any other nation," The Times of India said.

"Since this expression has been mentioned without any qualifications, it could be invoked against anybody who talks disparagingly about other countries," The Times of India explains.

In addition, India’s MediaNama, adds, "These rules give the Indian government the ability to gag free speech, and block any website it deems fit, without publicly disclosing why sites have been blocked, who took the decision to block it, and just as importantly, providing adequate recourse to blogs, sites and online and mobile businesses, for getting the block removed."

Free speech advocates may try to challenge in the new rules in Indian courts.

In addition, the Indian government has issued new regulations on data security and Internet cafes, The New York Times reports.

The New York Times also reported that an India-based spokeswoman for Google (News - Alert) declined to immediately comment on the new rules.

But a Google spokesperson told The Times of India the guidelines may be "particularly damaging to the abilities of Indians who are increasingly using the internet in order to communicate, and the many businesses that depend upon online collaboration to prosper."

The Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society has also published a list of 11 Web sites banned by the India’s Department of Information Technology.

In a related matter, TMCnet reports that Freedom House has ranked India 14th among 37 countries on "free and unrestricted access to the web."

The number of Indians with Internet access is increasing, with many users in the nation favoring mobile devices. Over 700 million cellphone accounts now exist in India, The New York Times said.

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