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.

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