Google and Facebook forced to censor content in India

07/02/2012

Google and Facebook have removed content from some Indian domain websites this week, following a court directive warning them of a crackdown “like China” if they did not take steps to protect religious sensibilities. The two internet giants are among 21 companies asked to develop a feature to block objectionable material after a private petitioner took them to court over images deemed offensive to Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

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Indian officials have been incensed by material insulting to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and religious groups, including illustrations showing Singh and Gandhi in compromising positions and pigs running through Mecca, Islam's holiest city.

"There is no question of any censorship," Communications Minister Sachin Pilot said in Bangalore. "They all have to operate within the laws of the country. ... There must be responsible behavior on both sides."

Anyone hurt by online content should be able to seek legal redress, he said. The government has warned it has evidence to prosecute 21 sites for offenses of "promoting enmity between classes and causing prejudice to national integration."

The case has stoked fears about censorship in the world’s largest democracy.

“(Our) review team has looked at the content and disabled this content from the local domains of search, YouTube and Blogger,” Google spokeswoman Paroma Roy Chowdhury said.

At the heart of the dispute is a law that India passed last year making companies responsible for user content posted on their web sites, and giving them 36 hours to take down content if there’s a complaint.

Last month, the companies said it was not possible for them to block content. Google’s Roy Chowdhury declined to comment on what had since been removed, and a Facebook representative said only that the company would release a statement later.

A lower court in New Delhi told the companies on Monday to put in writing the steps they had taken to block offensive content, and submit reports to the court within 15 days.

Fewer than one in 10 of India’s 1.2 billion population has access to the Internet, but that still makes it the third-biggest Internet market after China and the United States. The number of Internet users in India is expected to almost triple to 300 million over the next three years.

Despite the new rules to block offensive content, India’s Internet access is still largely uncensored, in contrast to the tight controls in neighbouring China.

While civil rights groups have opposed the new laws, politicians say posting offensive images in a socially conservative country, which has a history of violence between religious groups, presents a danger to the public.

The issue of country-specific censorship sparked global outcry in recent weeks, after Twitter said it would allow tweets to be deleted in countries where the content breaks local law.

Twitter insisted the new policy would help freedom of expression and transparency by preventing the entire site from being blocked. But dissidents and activists who have embraced Twitter in their campaigns accused the site of betraying free speech.

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