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India Demands Web Content Filters

  • Anjana Pasricha

A girl surfs a Facebook page at an Internet cafe in Gauhati, India, Dec. 6, 2011.

A girl surfs a Facebook page at an Internet cafe in Gauhati, India, Dec. 6, 2011.

India is warning Internet companies that it will take action to remove offensive content from their sites if they do not do so voluntarily.

India's Minister of Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal has asked representatives of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Microsoft to screen and remove offensive user content and derogatory material. He said he has not met with any success and is accusing companies of not cooperating.

"We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people," he said, explaining that he wants companies to implement a monitoring mechanism that filters images and content that could inflame religious sensibilities. "Our cultural ethos is very important to us and we will not allow the religious sentiments of large sections of the community to be hurt in this fashion, and we will not allow intermediaries to say that we throw up our hands, we cannot do anything about it."

Sibal added that the government will develop guidelines and mechanisms to ensure "blasphemous material" is not uploaded, though he did not elaborate.

Explaining that the demands aren't tantamount to censorship, he describes his request as a call for "self-regulation."

“This government does not believe in censorship," he said. "This government does not believe in either directly or indirectly interfering in the freedom of the press, and we have demonstrated that time and again."

Among the "offensive content" that has apparently angered the government were posts insulting to Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The minister showed reporters doctored photos of the prime minister and of Sonia Gandhi, along with images of pigs running through Islam's holy city of Mecca.

In a statement, Facebook said it wants the social networking site to be a place where people can discuss things freely, while respecting the rights and feelings of others. It said it already has policies and on-site features in place that enable people to report abusive content. The statement said the company will continue to engage with Indian authorities on the issue.

India has 100 million Internet users. Although that is slightly less than 10 percent of the population, the volume of user content the community generates is huge. According to domestic media reports, Internet companies have cited this fact to strengthen their argument that meeting the government’s demand is impossible.

The government’s desire to regulate content evoked strong reactions in India, with many bloggers and Twitter commenters ridiculing the minister and suggesting he did not understand the Internet.

The government also attempted an electronic crackdown last year when it requested access to secure communications over BlackBerry devices. At that time the government said it wanted access because of security concerns, but it later backed off.