India has urged social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove offensive material and self-censor user generated content, unleashing a storm of criticism from internet users complaining of censorship in the world’s largest democracy.
One of the first major government pushes came in April, when the “Information Technology Rules 2011” were introduced. These rules require intermediaries – companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo, that provide the platform for users to comment and create their own content – to respond quickly to complaints from individual users. These complaints should mainly relate to content that is “disparaging” or “harassing”. If the complainant’s claim is valid, these companies must take down the offensive information within 36 hours.
However the initial test from the Center for Internet and Society (C.I.S) in Bangalore has shown that the rules seem to encourage “privately administered injunctions to censor and chill free expression”. A third party whose information has been removed is not informed about the take-down request or given a chance to defend itself.
The study’s results show the “rules are procedurally flawed as they ignore all elements of natural justice,” C.I.S. concludes.
This week however, Indian IT minister Kapil Sibal has threatened to impose new and additional rules to weed out derogatory material from the Internet after major websites refused to censor themselves in a dispute that tests India’s commitment to free speech.
Government officials are upset about web pages that are insulting to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and major religious figures. Some illustrations have shown Singh and Gandhi in compromising positions and pigs running through Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
The dispute highlights India’s continuing difficulty in balancing the Internet culture of freewheeling discourse with its home-grown religious and political sensitivities.
Sibal said he spoke repeatedly with officials from major Internet companies over the past three months and asked them to come up with a voluntary framework to keep offensive material off the Internet.
In a meeting Monday, the Internet companies told him there was nothing they could do.
Rajesh Chharia (president of India’s Internet Service Providers Association) commented: “India is more sensitive than other countries. Some amount of check and balance is required. But to pre-screen all material is an uphill task and may not be practically applicable.”
But Gulshan Rai, head of the Indian Cyber Emergency Response Teams (CERT-In) claims it is possible to pre-screen the contents. “The companies can design filters to check that any objectionable content cannot make its way to the websites.” Another official in the department of IT insisted, “I don’t think the government is supporting censorship. We are saying that if the sites don’t fall in line, then we will need to take action. If they do not remove the defamatory contents and take action, then we will. We are not trying to gag freedom of speech.”
It is not yet clear how far the government will go to police the web, but it certainly seems like the internet experience in India is set to change for both users and service providers.
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