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India Defends Itself Against Charges of Internet Censorship

  • Anjana Pasricha

Activist of Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, or Hindu Awareness Forum, shout slogans against the government's attempts to block social media accounts and websites, August 24, 2012.

Activist of Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, or Hindu Awareness Forum, shout slogans against the government's attempts to block social media accounts and websites, August 24, 2012.

NEW DELHI — In India, the government is defending itself against charges of Internet censorship after asking companies such as Facebook and Twitter to block hundreds of websites. India's efforts to regulate online content and pressure social media companies have attracted criticism.

Following threats to take action against Twitter, Indian officials say the micro-blogging site has agreed to talk to the government. But the government’s face-off with Twitter is far from over.

The government wants Twitter to remove 28 pages containing what it calls “objectionable content,” but officials say Twitter has cited technical difficulties in complying with the request.

The government asked social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to block hundreds of websites and pages recently after doctored online images fueled rumors of revenge attacks by Muslims on migrants from the north east, prompting them to flee cities.

Communication and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal refutes charges that the government is trying to censor social media. But he says its misuse has to be prevented.

Minister Sibal says it is necessary to talk to all stakeholders and prepare a mechanism under which any objectionable content can be identified and taken down.

The government says it has to quash “hate messages” akin to the ones which sparked the recent exodus of migrants from the northeast.

But many users of social networking sites have expressed concerns that India may be curtailing online freedom.

The government already faces an angry backlash from many Twitter users after Internet service providers blocked several Twitter accounts, including those of two journalists.

In the past week, more than 300 websites, Facebook pages, YouTube videos and Twitter handles have been blocked.

Internet analysts say this was justified in the interest of national security. But they point out some of the recent government actions have been excessive.

The Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society, which analyzed the more than 300 web pages that have been blocked, says they included those of people trying to debunk rumors or just news websites.

Pranesh Prakash, a program manager at the group, says, “I am not questioning the motivations of the government which in the current case seemed to be above board. We found that most of the material was communal. But I do feel the government went overboard in doing so, that it has also curbed legitimate reportage, it has also for instance, very ineptly blocked some webpages which show that many of the photos which are circulating around are fake, falsified images.”

Concerns about the government tightening Internet control were raised months ago after India tried to pressure social media companies to prescreen and remove online content which the government finds objectionable.

Advocates of online freedom say they are especially concerned about a law passed last year that obliges Internet companies to remove “objectionable content” when requested to do so.

Rahul Roushan, editor of the Faking News website, which satirizes Indian current events, says, “The problem is in the name of vigilance what are you doing? You are taking the power to decide what is offensive and what is objectionable or what is against national security, and you are delegating this power to just bureaucrats, police inspectors. And this law has given them power to decide what is objectionable and they can arm-twist the intermediaries and get the content blocked. The court should decide what is objectionable, what is against the national interest."

In June, the government asked Twitter to block six fake Twitter accounts which purport to be that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A government spokesman says Twitter has agreed to comply with the request.

A Google Transparency report says that last year, India topped the list of countries that routinely ask Internet companies to remove content.

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