Latest Indian Internet Demands Spark Fresh Concerns

Article  by  Sara HEFT  •  Published 17.12.2011  •  Updated 20.12.2011
Kapil Sibal
[NEWS] As Internet use explodes on the subcontinent, the Indian government has repeatedly cracked down on digital content, most recently with its request that Web companies like Google weed out objectionable material before it can ever be published online.
With its latest demand, the Indian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, headed by Kapil Sibal, is seeking to oblige Internet “intermediaries”, which include search engine and social networking giants like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft, to effectively censor themselves by screening content posted by Indian users, removing incendiary or defamatory contributions before they are placed online.
The attempt to control the conduct of Web companies comes in the wake of the “Information Technology Rules 2011” imposed in April 2011, demanding that the same players delete objectionable content – described as “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene […] or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever” – within 36 hours of receiving notification from authorities, or risk prosecution. This move had elicited outcry from Indian netizens and defenders of free speech, who denounced the measures, claiming that they could potentially lead to severe restrictions on Indian Web discussions in a country that counts some 100 million Internet users – a dismal penetration rate at less than 10% of the country’s population, but the fourth largest online population in the world nevertheless, following China, the United States and Japan, and one that is expected to grow rapidly in the next few years with the explosion of cheaper tablet computers. Last spring, Reporters Without Borders voiced its concern at the rules’ vagueness in defining illegal content, citing criticism from the Internet and Mobile Association of India: “The rules seem to step on the statutory side, biased towards the complainant […]. Even before a case is filed in court, the website has to take down the content. It might harm freedom of speech on the Internet.” Producers of removed information, meanwhile, are not informed about the removal request or given the opportunity to defend themselves.

India, "partly free" according to Freedom House's 2011 report
Representatives of the aforementioned Web companies, which had “stonewalled” these previous requests to block the content in question, were summoned to a meeting with Mr. Sibal on December 5, 2011, following two previous meetings: one held six weeks earlier, over the course of which the Minister showed a Facebook page attacking Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, deemed “unacceptable”; and a second in late November 2011, in which Mr. Sibal stated that the government insists that the companies use teams of human beings, rather than technology, to scour endless pages in carrying out this “proactive prescreening” operation. In the wake of the third meeting, Facebook, which counts over 25 million Indian Facebook users, issued a public statement: “We will remove content that violates our terms, which are designed to keep material that is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity off the service”. Google, whose sky-high user numbers in India hover around the subcontinent’s overall online population, went further in its own statement: “We work really hard to both follow the law and also give people as much access to information as we can. […We] don’t remove [legal but controversial] content because people’s differing views should be respected, so long as they are legal.” According to the Google Transparency Report, in the first half of 2011, the Indian government made 68 content removal requests. In refusing to comply, the Internet companies are claiming that U.S. law, rather than the Indian government’s I.T. Rules 2011, applies to them. Mr. Sibal insisted that “the community standards of India have to be taken into account”, and in an interview published in The Hindi on December 6, 2011, stated that “these companies are in essence saying that they publish content in accordance with standards in the west. That’s not good enough. I will, however, call all stakeholders to the table, and evolve agreed standards for what kinds of content are acceptable, before a final decision.”
Indian news coverage: Kapil Sibal defends himself against accusations of censorship 
These highly controversial Internet rules reveal the paradoxes ingrained in the world’s largest democracy, home to a cutting-edge technology industry catering in large part to western clients, but where religious, political and sexual taboos remain rampant when it comes to public discourse. Security concerns also play a major role, with the basis for the 2011 Internet rules and latest demands lying in a 2008 I.T. law passed shortly after the three-day Mumbai siege carried out by terrorists, totaling more than 160 victims. The law expanded governmental authority to monitor electronic communications in the name of national security, and included a liability waiver that pleased intermediary Internet companies, previously held liable for hosting content created by users. In this push, BlackBerry producer Research in Motion has notably been placed under a great deal of pressure from the Indian government to provide access to its devices’ heavily encrypted data, repeatedly threatened with a ban last year unless it complied. The 2011 Internet crackdown in the name of security and “civility”, meanwhile, has led a number of domestic observers to make comparisons to notoriously Internet-unfriendly countries like China, Saudi Arabia or Iran. But, says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based research group, “shutting the Internet hasn’t worked in China or Saudi Arabia, and it won’t work in India”.
Indian tweeters express their ire toward Mr. Sibal with the hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal

Photo Credits: World Economic Forum/Flickr, Freedom HouseIBNLive/YouTube, Twitter
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