Old issues, new debates on Internet freedom in India

Just how free should the Internet be in India? And whose job is it to police the Web?

Two recent court cases turn on these questions and, more specifically, whether Internet companies have a responsibility to filter content. In a country where Internet usage is growing exponentially, but where the scars of communal violence, terrorism, and identity politics are fresh, the answers are likely to have deep ramifications for years to come.

Google and Facebook complied on Monday with an injunction by a Delhi civil court to remove some web pages from their sites. The order was passed in December in response to a complaint filed by an Islamic cleric that 22 sites operating in India, including 12 foreign sites, were carrying ‘anti-religious’ and ‘anti-social’ content  offensive to the country’s numerous religious communities, according to news reports.  

Google refused to elaborate on the nature of the web pages that were removed, or their specific number. “This step is in accordance with Google’s long standing policy of responding to court orders,” a Google India spokesperson told CPJ.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

The companies have been given a two-week deadline to show the court how they will monitor their sites or face charges.

In a separate case, 22 social networking sites, including some run by Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft, are facing a far more serious charge. After a complaint was registered against them in December in a Delhi metropolitan court, executives from the company face criminal charges, punishable by seven years imprisonment, for violating Sections 292 and 293 of the Indian Penal Code, which relates to the sale of obscene materials to minors. They’ve been accused of “promoting enmity between groups” and “deliberate acts intended to outrage,” according to NDTV.

The complainant in that case is Vinay Raj, the 42-year-old editor of Akbhari, a Hindi and Urdu weekly. Since there is no control over content, Raj told CPJ, a system should be put in place to prevent offensive material being uploaded.

Certainly, the judiciary is taking a stern stand. During an initial hearing of Rai’s case, High Court Justice Suresh Kait admonished the global companies severely, saying that if they did not have a suitable system in place to filter offensive content they could be banned, much like in China.  The next hearing is scheduled for February 14.  

Both these cases are part of the growing debate on Internet freedom in India.

“It is natural when new technology emerges new issues will crop up,” Ajit Balarkrishnan, chairperson of India’s largest Internet company Rediff.com and chairperson of the Government’s Information and Technology Committee on Internet Governance and Proliferation, told CPJ. “These two cases have sparked a healthy, constructive debate about absolute freedom and responsibility.”

The debate increasingly centers on the role of Internet companies in policing content. Does putting the onus on Internet companies pre-empt the need for state censorship? Or does it simply put the burdens and costs of censorship on the shoulders of private companies?

As Internet usage burgeons — India has the third largest online community in the world, according to the International Telecommunication Union — new issues are emerging.  “The 2000 Information Technology Act did not define what was considered offensive,” says Sajai Singh, who specializes in technology law and practice in Bangalore with the legal firm J. Sagar Associates. ”It was therefore modified with the addition of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guideline) Rules 2011 last April.”

Drafted by Balarkrishnan, its clauses are extremely wide-ranging, enjoining companies to remove content deemed “defamatory” ‘disparaging” ”unlawful” “ethnically objectionable”, “blasphemous,” “grossly harmful” within 36 hours of a complaint being registered or face punishment.

Singh believes that a broader issue of censorship of the Internet has emerged out of these cases. “The key issue is whether the government intends the intermediaries to be their partners in effecting the censorship. The judiciary will decide on this freedom of speech.”

Supporters of online freedom are appalled. 

“The Internet is a whole different medium,” stresses Sunil Abraham from the Centre for Internet Societies, Bangalore. “What is at stake here is the whole notion of freedom of the media, especially of the Internet, which is the only platform that can be called free. The print media and the air waves are regulated. Private radio channels have not been allowed to air news programs. The only platform left for complete freedom of expression in this country is the Internet. It should not be selectively censored. “

Speaking to the media on the sidelines of an event in Bangalore on Monday, Sachin Pilot, Minister of State of Telecommunication, said, “There is no question of censorship.” But he added that companies should be “accountable” for objectionable content on their site. “There must be responsible behavior at both ends,” he said.

Official assurances aside, questions of censorship will remain.