New Delhi/Mumbai: India, the world’s largest democracy, may force companies such as Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc. and Facebook Inc. to take down online content that it deems offensive because they haven’t been able to come up with an effective self-censorship mechanism governing millions of users.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had no option but to “evolve guidelines” to ensure that “blasphemous content on the Internet or television is not allowed”, with Internet and social networking sites such as those above “failing to respond to and cooperate with” the government’s request to keep “objectionable” content out of their websites, Kapil Sibal, minister of communications and information technology (IT), said in New Delhi on Tuesday.
His comments unleashed a firestorm of criticism by Internet advocacy groups and experts, who said the move amounted to censorship and was anti-democratic, impractical and unwarranted since existing laws were comprehensive enough to remove “objectionable” content. The move, they argued, would also stem the growth of user-generated content sites, and thus the Internet itself.
A file photo of telecom minister Kapil Sibal.
The government has been battling a series of corruption scandals and criticism of its inability to move forward on policy reforms. A campaign against corruption fuelled by online support has also challenged the government’s authority to legislate, forcing its own version of an anti-graft legislation onto the agenda.
The latest move by the government follows the introduction of new rules to the Information Technology Act, 2008, that were published earlier this year, also heavily criticized, that called on Internet service providers (ISPs) along with other entities to police online postings, including blogs.
Sibal referred to what he considered objectionable content as a “matter of grave concern”, which affects the “sensibility of our people and is against our cultural ethos”.
Sibal justifies his decision to create guidelines for removing objectionable content online, and claims it doesn’t amount to censorship.
Once the new policy framework is implemented, companies “will be duty-bound to share information about those who post content, even if it (the content) is posted outside India”. He didn’t say by when the policy would be put in place.
Discussions with executives from the firms mentioned above had begun in September, Sibal said. They had been asked to come up with solutions to address the perceived problem in a month’s time and had failed to do so, he said.
According to local media reports, the move follows posts about some senior Congress leaders, including party president Sonia Gandhi. The minister, who is also one of India’s top lawyers, did not refer to any specific “objectionable” material during his press briefing, but rued that “the content has still not been removed”.
Google India defended the right of free speech, while saying that it didn’t condone illegality.
“Even where content is legal but breaks our own terms and conditions, we take that down too, once we’ve been notified about it,” Google India said in a release. “But it also means that when content is legal but controversial, we don’t remove it because people’s differing views should be respected, so long as they are legal.”
Facebook India also said that it would remove any content that crossed the line.
It “has policies and onsite features in place that enable people to report abusive content”, the company said. “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.”
While Yahoo India declined to comment, Microsoft did not respond to an email till press time.
Internet censorship is a rising trend, with approximately 40 countries filtering the Web in varying degrees, including democratic and non-democratic governments. Governments are using increasingly sophisticated censorship and surveillance techniques, including blocking social networks, to restrict a variety of types of content, says the 2010 Global Network Initiative (GNI) report. GNI seeks to protect freedom of speech online.
This August, for instance, the Centre had written to the department of telecommunications, asking it to “ensure effective monitoring of Twitter and Facebook”, which minister of state for communications and IT Milind Deora acknowledged a few days later in a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha. He mentioned access to “encrypted data” on social networking sites, but did not elaborate on the subject.
Currently, the Indian Telegraph Act and the IT Act, 2008, (amendments were introduced in IT Act, 2000) give the government the power to monitor, intercept and even block online conversations and websites. The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) has put up a list of 11 such websites blocked by a government order. The data was received from the department of information technology (DIT).
Moreover, under section 79 of the IT Intermediary (Rules and Guidelines), 2011, intermediaries (comprising telcos, ISPs, network services providers, search engines, cyber cafes, Web-hosting companies, online auction portals and online payment sites) are mandated to exercise “due diligence” and advise users not to share/distribute information violative of the law or a person’s privacy and rights. Intermediaries are expected to act on a complaint within 36 hours of receiving it, and remove such content when warranted.
In case the intermediary doesn’t find the content objectionable, the matter will have to be contested in a court of law.
“Currently, you need a court of law to direct a company in case something has to be removed. That takes a lot of time. So there has to be a mechanism that is faster in dealing with such content as (it) can be very damaging,” said a DIT official, who did not want to be named.
“The Indian government can, and should, monitor conversations and websites if it believes the content can harm the security, defence, sovereignty and integrity of the country,” said Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court lawyer and cyber law expert. However, he wondered how the government would go about implementing the task of monitoring each and every conversation on an unstructured Internet.
Bangalore-based CIS, an Internet advocacy group, said “this pre-emptive manual screening of content, if implemented, would sound the death knell of freedom of expression in India”.
“This screening is worrisome. Companies will err on the side of caution in a bid to please the government, and the courts will not be involved,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of CIS. “This is not only unconstitutional, but technically impossible too. Speech and words have nuances. Can humans decipher these with accuracy?”
The move will undermine key principles on which the Internet was built, said Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of digital industry news and analysis blog MediaNama.
“It is completely impossible to enforce this. There is no way that content can be prescreened before it is placed online,” he said. “It also kills the concept of immediate communication, which the Internet stands for.”
Cyber law expert Na Vijayashankar, who runs cyber law information portal Naavi, said: “The government has valid reason to control anti-national activities on the Internet. But there are existing laws for it. The current proposition is impractical since pre-scrutiny of content on the Internet is not possible. It will affect the growth of user-generated content, which is helping Internet penetration grow in India.”
Internet censorship happens frequently in countries such as Myanmar, Cuba, China (which had blocked keyword searches of the word “Egypt” on the Internet as well as on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. On the very day the Egyptian government set out to block Internet services in the country (in January), US Republican senator Susan Collins floated the COICA Bill, popularly called the “kill switch” Bill, which, if approved, would give the US president similar powers.
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