Indians browse the internet in a cyber cafe in New Delhi, next to large signs that tell them that their log data is being recorded and they are being monitored by cameras. (Pavitra Gulati /THE WASHINGTON POST)

New Internet rules that seek to enhance national security and limit offensive content have sparked an angry debate about free speech in the world’s largest democracy.

The regulations prohibit Web sites and service providers from hosting information that could be regarded as “harmful,” “blasphemous” or “insulting” to any other nation, among other things. Providers are expected to remove such content within 36 hours of being notified of a complaint, and search engines, Web sites and cyber cafes can be held liable for objectionable material.

The Indian government says that the rules try to maintain a balance between freedom and security, and that officials studied laws in other democratic countries before writing their own.

But Internet users, bloggers and activists say the regulations are among the most restrictive in the world, and they are lobbying lawmakers to raise their concerns in Parliament when it meets this week.

The government posted the rules on its Web site for public input between February and April and has since approved them. Parliament will be informed about them this month, but that step is considered a formality.

But one official said the government would still be willing to listen to dissenting views and could consider changes.

“We believe in freedom of speech through all media, including the Internet, although there are some codes of conduct that are expected to be followed by all,” said Sachin Pilot, deputy minister for communication and information technology. “We have sought to balance the rights of consumers with those of service providers and other stakeholders in this space. We must draw a distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of expression with intent to harm or defame someone.

India has the third-largest number of Internet users in the world — 110 million. That number is expected to rise rapidly in this country of 1.2 billion people, about half of whom are younger than 25.

Critics say the rules give the government unbridled power to block Web sites and force any portal, search engine or cyber cafe to cooperate for vague reasons, such as safeguarding the sovereignty of India or to keep public order.

“With this kind of blanket surveillance regime, we are on a very slippery slope,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society in the southern city of Bangalore. “The language is so vague that it is open to arbitrary interpretation. . . . In comparison with other democracies in North America and Europe, the Indian rules appear to be on the China end of the spectrum.”

A Google India spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “A free and open Internet is essential for the growth of the digital economy and for safeguarding freedom of expression. If Internet platforms are held liable for third-party content, it would lead to self-censorship and reduce the free flow of information.”

Activists say the rule holding cyber cafes liable is unprecedented.

Internet cafes are required to install surveillance cameras and demand identification from customers . At cyber cafes across India, people surf the Web next to large signs warning that they are being monitored.

But under the new rules, cafes will also have to keep a record of each user’s browsing activity and submit those records to the government every month.

Investigators have found vital clues to bombings in e-mails accessed at cyber cafes, and authorities say tighter rules could help them with their inquiries. After attacks in Mumbai last month, police closed several small cyber cafes in nearby villages that were operating without a license.

“We definitely want cyber cafes to be governed by unified rules for the interest of the national security and maintain the customer details,” said Amrita Choudhury, director of the Cyber Cafe Association of India. “However, that would be a lot of data for a cyber cafe owner to handle. We would urge the government to create a secure central repository. We would not want the data to fall into the wrong hands.”

Internet activists say that such stringent regulations will be difficult to implement. The objective, Abraham said, “appears to be to scare citizens into self-censorship.”

In recent months, anti-corruption crusaders have used the Internet to mobilize tens of thousands of people across India to protest a series of graft scandals engulfing the government. Analysts say the new rules would probably stifle this growing online resistance.

“The sharpest and most vocal criticism of the Indian government and the political leadership has emerged from the Internet,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an independent lawmaker who is mobilizing opposition to the regulations. “But now a sword hangs over these people who blog and debate freely. This is not good for a country that has a predominantly young population, expanding middle class and is turning more urban.”