India has urged social network companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove offensive material, unleashing a storm of criticism from Internet users in the world’s largest democracy complaining of censorship.
Telecoms and information technology minister Kapil Sibal met executives from Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft on Monday to ask them to screen content, but no agreement with the companies was reached.
Sibal denied he was promoting censorship and said some of the images and statements on social media sites risked fanning tensions in India, which has a long history of deadly religious violence.
A New York Times report on Monday that said Sibal called executives about six weeks ago and showed them a Facebook page that maligned ruling Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi and told them it was “unacceptable”.
The government is very sensitive to criticism of the Gandhi family. Last year there were moves to block the English translation of a Spanish novel about Sonia Gandhi’s life.
“We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us,” Sibal told reporters on Tuesday.
Sibal said his ministry was working on guidelines for action against companies who did not respond to the government’s requests, but did not specify what action could be taken.
“We’ll certainly evolve guidelines to ensure that such blasphemous material is not part of content on any platform.”
India’s largely unrestricted Internet access stands in contrast to tight controls in fellow Asian economic powerhouse China. But in line with many other government’s around the world, India has become increasingly edgy about the power of social media.
India’s bloggers and Twitter users scorned the minister’s proposals, saying a prefiltering system would limit free expression and was impossible to implement. The phrase #IdiotKapilSibal was one of India’s most tweeted on Tuesday.
“The idea of prescreening is impossible. How will they do it?…There is no technology currently that determines whether content is ‘defamatory’ or ‘offensive’,” India-based cyber security expert Vijay Mukhi told Reuters.
The New York Times report, which Sibal did not confirm or deny, was the focus of much of the online anger directed at the minister on Tuesday.
“I love Sonia Gandhi. She is awesome. She is God. And never wrong about anything, ever.” (This msg is approved by Kapil Sibal’s cyber cell),” posted twitter user Sorabh Pant.
Indian authorities were taken aback in the summer by an anti-corruption campaign that multiplied on Facebook and Twitter, drawing tens of thousands of people to street protests and forcing the government to agree to new anti-graft laws.
Last year, as part of a broader electronic security crackdown, Indian security agencies demanded access to communications sent through highly secure BlackBerry devices of Canadian smartphone maker Research In Motion.
RIM gave India access to its consumer services, including its Messenger services, but said it could not allow monitoring of its enterprise email.
Facebook said it recognized the government’s wish to minimize the amount of offensive content on the web. The California-based company said it removes content that violates company rules on nudity and inciting violence and hatred.
“(We) will continue to engage the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue,” Facebook said in a statement.
Yahoo India declined to comment and Google said it would comment later in the day.
India now has 100 million Internet users, less than a tenth of the country’s population of 1.2 billion. It is the third-largest user base behind China and the United States. It is seen swelling to 300 million users in the next three years.
During last year’s clampdown, officials also said Google and Skype would be sent notices to set up local servers to allow full monitoring of email and messenger communications.
Britain also faced criticism last month for considering curbs on social media after recent riots even as Foreign Secretary William Hague castigated countries that block the Internet to stifle protests.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor on his twitter account announced that he was not in favour of censoring content on the Internet only to retreat his statement minutes later. “As a frequent victim of “disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content” on social media, I wish2stress I’m not in favour of censoring it, ” Tharoor said initially.
But soon after talking to Sibal, he felt assured that Sibal was opposed to political censorship and concerned only about “communally inflammatory images&language which he described.” In support of his colleague, Tharoor tweeted: “Have to say I support Kapil Sibal on the examples he gave me: deeply offensive material about religions&communities that could incite riots…… Pretty vile stuff. Sadly public didn’t object2them 1st…..all societies observe certain restraints re language&images acceptable in public.”
Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah showing his support for Kapil Sibal tweeted: “I hate the idea of censorship but have seen for myself how dangerous inflammatory content on #facebook & #youtube can be. We want the luxury of free speech but not the burden of responsibility for how we use that freedom. Something will have to give. If push came to shove I’d come down on the side of freedom of speech but its one of those freedoms that has me worried unfortunately. How come all of you going nuts over Kapil Sibal’s proposal also go nuts when Hurriyat leaders go on anti-India rants???? Freedom of speech??”
Varun Gandhi however opposed Sibal’s proposal for censorship: “The Internet is the only truly democratic medium free of vested interests,media owners & paid-off journos. Can see why Sibal wants to gag it.”