India has the world’s largest democracy, and one of the most rambunctious. Millions of its young people are cutting edge when it comes to high-tech.
Yet the country is still very conservative by Western standards, and a government minister recently said that offensive material on the web should be removed.
The way it was reported in India, Communications Minister Kapil Sibal started the whole row by assembling the heads of social networking sites at a meeting in his office in New Delhi.
At the time, he was reported to have asked companies, like Google and Facebook, to devise a system to filter through and edit out objectionable material before it could make its way online.
In an interview with the Indian cable channel CNN-IBN, Sibal pointed to offensive religious content that could cause ethnic or inter-communal conflict.
“We will defend any citizens’ right to freedom of speech until our last breath. But we don’t want this kind of content to be on the social media,” Sibal said in the interview.
India’s civil society, and more particularly its very active blogosphere, was outraged.
Pranesh Prakash from the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore says even the suggestion of censorship is a dangerous idea. Particularly if it’s done before the content is posted online.
“Pre-censorship is a very dangerous idea and is also something that actually doesn’t happen in countries that are known for censoring the internet,” Prakash says. “It will be charting a new path in Internet censorship.”
Prakash says the proposal would be impractical, as well as undemocratic. Even with an army of censors, it would impossible to filter through content before it’s uploaded, he says.
Stung by the criticism, Kapil Sibal now says he was misunderstood and that it “would be madness” to ask for pre-screening of content on electronic media and social media.
But in that fateful meeting, the Communications Minister also reportedly objected to unflattering portrayals of India’s political leaders on the Internet and in Twitter messages. And that idea reinforced concerns that the government was overreaching and muffling dissent.
Censoring hate speech is one thing, but leaving it to the likes of Google to monitor political speech is problematic, says Apar Gupta, an Internet lawyer in New Delhi.
“It may offend you today, it may not cater to your taste, but at the end of the day: is it legal?” says Gupta. “The new proposals are quite a dramatic change, not only in terms of enforcement, but also in terms of what kind of speech it will prohibit.”
Up till now, there has been some legal room for the government to censor inflammatory speech. For example, movies in India are subjected to a government censor board that monitors their content before they can be released to the general public. This year, a controversial movie about India’s social caste system, was banned in some parts of the country.
But the Internet is less restrictive, says Apar Gupta.
“You can voice your opinion without any social sanctions for your opinions,” he says. “So it’s been a pressure valve which has allowed a lot of people to let off steam.”
But even so, when debate online boils over in India it’s the website or search engine that’s held responsible. So critics of the proposed restrictions don’t see the need for further action.
All this has left Communications Minister Kapil Sibal as something of a hate figure among Internet-savvy Indians. Although he says he’s going to be pressing for tighter controls, he has agreed to meet with the Internet companies again.