NEW DELHI — In the world’s largest democracy, the government wants Internet sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google to screen and remove offensive content about religious figures and political leaders as soon as they learn about it. But those companies now say they can’t help.
India’s minister of communications Kapil Sibal began discussions with the online companies in September. On Tuesday, he told reporters the government will have to create new guidelines to disable such content from the Internet sites on its own.
“We will not allow intermediaries to say that ‘we throw up our hands, we can’t do anything about it,’” Sibal said.
Sibal had shown company executives derogatory images of the Prophet Mohammed and morphed pictures of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi that appeared on their platforms. Sibal said these images would offend “any reasonable person” and also hurt religious sentiments of Indians.
But on Monday, according to Sibal, the company executives said they cannot do anything.
Soon after Sibal’s news conference, Facebook said in a statement: “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.” Those parameters are unlikely to include all the images the government of India wants screened out.
Sibal’s move did not come as a surprise for some observers in India, which has the third-largest Internet-user community in the world--more than 100 million people. Earlier this year, India introduced new rules that called on Web sites, service providers and search engines to not host information that could be regarded as “harmful, “blasphemous” or “disparaging.” The rules also called on Web sites to remove offensive material within 36 hours of a complaint.
“I can’t believe a democracy is doing this,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of India’s Center for Internet and Society. He said recent, unpublished research conducted by the group showed that “such rules have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression on the Internet.” Researchers sent mock take-down notices to seven sites, complaining about their content. Abraham said six sites immediately deleted content. “They did not even verify the validity of our flawed complaint. They over-complied,” he said.
Sibal’s announcement also sparked a debate on Twitter, where Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor and Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah weighed in:
Internet freedom activist Jillian York responded to the politicians:
The Streisand effect is an online phenomenon in which an attempt to censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information further. (It is named after Barbara Streisand, who attempted in 2003 to hide pictures of her giant home; that only created more interest.)
But a blogger who calls himself the “Pragmatic Desi” argued that India had its own constraints:
But Member of Parliament Varun Gandi said that’s precisely why the Internet shouldn’t be censored:
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