Amid a raging debate on Internet freedom and censorship in India, members of the government met last week with a clutch of website operators, including representatives of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. In a meeting scheduled to address a wider plan to leverage social media to empower the government, it's unclear whether the touchy subject of filtering content was addressed, and the government said the meeting's tone was conciliatory. In any case, there has as yet been no resolution of the question of who should be responsible for filtering content deemed offensive, or how such a determination should be made
The discussion came after Kapil Sibal, minister of telecommunications and information technology, told representatives of leading social networking sites to pre-screen user content for anything offensive to religious sensitivities or derogatory, in a meeting on December 5. His examples were content that lampooned Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and images of a mosque overrun by pigs.
The digital world was incensed by what they saw as Sibal's attempt to control online speech. Headlines, scathing editorials and cover stories followed, in leading publications including The Times of India, The Hindu, and Outlook. Uday Shankar, chief operating officer of the India branch of Rupert Murdoch-owned Star media company, described the move as "censorship cloaked in pre-emptive regulation."
In interviews and parliamentary statements, the government denies supporting censorship. Faced with the deluge of bad press, Sibal denied having suggested pre-emptive monitoring in a television interview with English-language TV news network CNN-IBN. Yet his language sounds ominous. He has said the government would consider "appropriate steps" to take if social networking sites did not cooperate. He also told a journalist in an interview with The Hindu: "It gives me no pleasure to restrict social media, but the fact is there is a problem. These companies are in essence saying that they publish content in accordance with standards in the West. That's not good enough."
Sunil Abraham is executive director of the Centre of Internet Societies, an organization that engages with issues of digital pluralism. Speaking to CPJ from Amman, Jordan, he said he sees a pattern in the restrictions being imposed on the Internet and telecommunication companies that he calls "policing cyberspace." Last year, in the interests of national security, the government asked the manufacturers of Blackberry for access to users' email messages. When the company refused to comply, the government backed off. But not before questions were raised about the Ministry of Telecommunication's desire to control private communication.
Indeed, the government has been increasing the monitoring of the Internet since a spate of terrorist attacks. In 2008, amendments to the Information Technology Act 2000 were passed--without discussion in Parliament--giving the Ministry authority to demand Internet portals block websites and designate a point person to ensure compliance. Failure to comply within 36 hours can result in fines and imprisonment up to seven years, according to Abraham.
Last April, the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines Rules 2011) were put in place requiring intermediaries to remove online content considered to be "objectionable," "disparaging," or "harmful." Since September, the Department of Information and Technology Ministry has held six meetings with leading social networking sites to work out a formula to weed out content deemed offensive. From January-June 2011, Google said it received 68 takedown requests regarding 358 content items, and acceded to about half of those requests. In its Transparency Report, the global search engine outlined that while eight items were flagged for hate speech, 255 were objected to on grounds of "criticizing the government."
Activists argue that the government's vigilance has increased in proportion to the growth of corruption allegations against politicians. Rajdeep Sardesai, Delhi-based editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, told CPJ that both television and social networking sites like Facebook helped fuel the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare this summer, gathering rallies which eventually disrupted Parliament. Hazare is already threatening another round of fasts later this month.
According to the Centre of Internet Societies' Abraham, the regulations enforced under the IT Act and the April guidelines go beyond the Indian Constitution, which already contains restrictions on free expression designed to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the country. Given that such controls are already in place, supporters of an open Internet wonder why the establishment is compromising online civil liberties.
Sardesai at CNN-IBN sees the moves as a warning to the media-- Internet, television and print--that "Big Brother is watching." Nikhil Pahwa, editor of digital media monitoring website Medianama, said he fears the government is creating a climate conducive to a more rigid type of censorship in the future.
The subtext of statements like Sibal's is disturbing, Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Hindu, said in a meeting with CPJ. "With severe restrictions already in place, why should the Indian government resort to some more 'guidelines?" He speculated that the government may be seeking to assert its authority over popular, commercial websites by making them fall in line. If this is true, it seems to be working. In an investigative study carried out by Centre of Internet Societies, fraudulent takedown notices were issued to a selection of seven websites - a mixture of social networking and shopping sites and news portals - to remove 'objectionable' posts. Seven out of the six complied immediately, the Center reported.
Conspiracy theorists suggest a larger game-plan. The same week Sibal asked Internet companies, including Google, to pre-censor posts and comments, an income tax notice was issued to Google India accusing it of under-reporting its income. (In response, Google has said its tax structure is compliant with Indian rules.)
The two events could be unconnected. However, old media hands recall tax notices issued to Time magazine in 1976, during the height of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. Many believed the notices were retaliation for its independent coverage.
Social media is still evolving in India, a potentially massive market. Even commentators like Sardesai argue digital media needs some kind of regulatory framework, like television and print. "But regulation does not mean censorship," he said. Since the government has so far failed to understand this distinction, the fight for online freedom looks set to continue in India.
Editors' note: This blog post has been corrected to reflect that Google received takedown requests regarding 358 items in January-June 2011, not that it acceded to 358 requests as previously stated. The spelling of Nikhil Pahwa's name has also been corrected.