The largest democracy in the world is drawing attention of the world and this time, it is for censoring internet liberty. And this is not the first time the eyes of the world are on this country, following an uneasy tension between allowing free expression to its citizens and staunching sectarian violence among its people. It was one of the first countries to ban The Satanic Verses by its own writer Salman Rushdie. It was the country’s lawsuits which forced painter MF Hussein to live in exile during the last several years of his life. And now, it is the internet which is like a galaxy of words and pictures rife with potential to inflame sentiments across the globe.
The country’s Information Technology Act, 2008 limits the liability of Internet firms for material posted on their websites by users, including anything government regulators deem objectionable. The firms are supposed to be notified of offensive content -- by users or the authorities -- and then remove that when legally warranted. What one has to wonder is then, why did the government sanction a criminal lawsuit against companies?
Even the Wall Street Journal on January 16, made a similar valid question:
“If that’s how the system is supposed to work, then why did the Indian government just sanction a criminal lawsuit against Google, Facebook and 19 other companies that all but ignores those protections in the information technology law?”
And overnight, the media attention is on Vinay Rai, a journalist -- not to forget that it is the media and media people who often cry for freedom and privacy – who has registered a criminal case against the content on Google's Orkut social networking site, YouTube, Facebook and several other smaller sites.
Rai, who works as a journalist in Akbari, a Urdu weekly, accused them of violating various provisions of India’s criminal code by allowing material that is mocking or offensive to religious and political figures to stay on their social networking sites. According to him, such content can “create communal riots across the country”.
In a sign of the growing tension, the high court judge told the companies at a hearing that they must find a way to monitor and delete offensive content, or India could go the way of China and start blocking entire websites more actively. Indian Express reported:
"You must have a stringent check. Otherwise, like China, we may pass orders banning all such websites," Justice Suresh Kait said.
The Google is still trying to cope with a far more direct and severe censorship regime in the neighboring country, China. Two years ago, Google said it would begin directing users to an uncensored search engine in Hong Kong, and now it is making a renewed push in China to market products and services such as its Android mobile phone platform.
Yes, agreed that there millions of people who use social networking sites across the world and there are thousands who create accounts with fake identities each day. Men posing as women, women posing as men, people posting objectionable, abusive content every day. But is there anybody to regulate them?
According to Google’s transparency report, India made nearly 70 requests to Google to remove content between January and June in 2010, one of the highest request rates of any country though less than the United States’ 92 and Brazil’s 224.
This is not the first time India is attempting to monitor and control electronic information. Last year, the government battled with Blackberry’s manufacturer, Research In Motion, threatening to shut the company’s service off in India if it did not allow government officials greater access to users’ messages.
Interestingly, before 2011, the public disenchantment with the government was not that great and it is exploding now through the Internet. Is it because of the public outrage over corruption and political dysfunction that is spilling into blog posts, Facebook posts and Tweets that the government is stepping up its enforcement against the web? But will the government’s decision to control the web and its content not “a clampdown on free speech altogether”?
There have been instances where people have kept themselves away from social networking sites. Users of all websites have the option to report objectionable content and that Indian laws make it essential for sites to then examine and delete content within a fixed period, if it's found to violate Indian guidelines. So it’s not just the laws, even the public can control offensive content.
Telecom minister Kapil Sibal had singled out Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi, when he had spoken to legal representatives of India’s top Web firms, the telecom minister reportedly described as “unacceptable” a Facebook page that offended her. But if it’s only to check offensive material on Sonia Gandhi, the government has to stop and think. It is this decision which led writers like Shobhaa De to tweet: “Sibalsaab, such outrage 2 protect privacy of one ‘Madam’ in a country of 100million internet users? We like our freedom and we shall have it!”, in what appeared to be a reference to Sonia Gandhi.
Not to forget, last year, Congress threatened legal action against the author of a fictionalized account of Sonai’s Gandhi’s life, which party officials described as defamatory.
When the government has plans to set up its own unit to monitor information posted on websites and social media sites, is there a need for blocking or banning social networking?
The crackdown on Web firms couldn’t come at a worse time for the emerging Internet sector in the country, which has a potential to grow from about 100 million users to more than 300 million within a few years, if nurtured.
Even the United States expressed concern over India’s effort to impose a code of conduct on web firms. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner had said: “Freedom of expression applies equally to the internet as it does in the real world.”
Hearings in the trial court will resume on March 13. Will the social networking giants recognize and learn their social responsibility by merely stepping into the court? One has to wait and watch.