News / Asia

Indian Internet Lawsuit Puts Spotlight on Freedom of Expression

Facebook page is displayed on a computer screen (file photo)
Facebook page is displayed on a computer screen (file photo)
Anjana Pasricha

In India, Internet giants such as Google and Facebook are fighting a lawsuit after the government authorized their prosecution for online content on their sites deemed to be offensive. The case has put the spotlight on free speech in the world’s largest democracy.

The criminal lawsuit filed by the editor of New Delhi-based Urdu weekly Akbari accuses 21 Internet companies of violating Indian law. Vinay Rai alleged that online material on their websites has the potential to incite religious conflict.

Rai said his colleagues brought to his attention images of Prophet Muhammad which could offend Muslims. He cited other images and text which could hurt sentiments of Hindus and Christians. Rai wants Internet companies to screen content before it is posted.

Google and Facebook have asked the Delhi High Court to dismiss the case against them. In an appeal, they  said it is impossible to filter all content or stop individuals from posting material online.

Editor Rai filed the case after the government indicated its approval for the prosecution. The official go-ahead came weeks after the government also raised a similar demand.

Voluntary framework

Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal told Internet company representatives to come up with a voluntary framework to keep offensive material off the net. After confronting them with photos and material derogatory of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, he said the companies had not cooperated.

Both the court case and the government’s demands have stoked fears of net censorship in the world’s largest democracy.

Advocacy groups say the dispute between authorities and websites began simmering last year when India tightened laws to block content which could be deemed offensive. Citizens and officials can ask sites to block objectionable material and failure to comply within 36 hours can attract penalties or imprisonment of up to seven years.

Sunil Abraham, with the Center for Internet and Society in India, said these rules have the potential to curtail debate and discussion on the net.

“These limits are vague.  They allow for all sorts of subjective tests by private parties and we predicted they would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression online," Abraham said. "Policy in India has been headed in a very worrisome direction.”

Abraham pointed out that one of his organization’s recent studies indicates that, faced with the threat of stiff penalties, most service providers removed content when asked to do so, even when it was not offensive or controversial.

Free media?

The government insists its objective is not to encroach on the fundamental right of free speech guaranteed by India’s democratic constitution. The clarification came from Minister Kapil Sibal after his meetings with Internet companies last month.

“This government does not believe in censorship," noted Sibal. "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.”

India does have a vibrant free media and Internet access is largely free, unlike in China. But in a country with a history of religious violence, authorities have long tussled with the dilemma of balancing free speech with the need to not inflame sentiments among religious groups. India was one of the first countries to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”
Other books and articles have also faced bans. Many are challenged in courts and several have been overturned.

Now the focus is on the Internet and questions are being raised about whether the web should or can be policed.

Online freedom

In a remark widely quoted in the domestic media, a judge hearing the case had warned websites that like China, India might be compelled to block some of them if they did not create means to curb material seen as offensive.

However, Abraham from the Center of Internet and Society hopes that, as the latest case navigates its way through Indian courts, online freedom will come up the winner.

“I think the executive in India has always been very conservative in freedom of expression. It is usually the courts in India that protect freedom of expression, the precedent," Abraham said. "So we are every hopeful that the current case is in the appropriate venue, and we are confident that, as in the past, the judiciary in India will stand on the side of freedom of expression.”

With 100 million people surfing the web, India has the world’s third largest number of Internet users after China and the United States.

You May Like

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Judge Declares Washington DC Ban on Public Handguns Unconstitutional

Ruling overturns capital city's prohibition on carrying guns in pubic More

Pricey Hepatitis C Drug Draws Criticism

Activists are using the International AIDS Conference to criticize drug companies for charging high prices for life-saving therapies More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid