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

    US Watching as North Korea Holds Biggest Political Meeting in 36 Years

    Workers' Party Congress set for Friday; Washington anticipating possibility of another missile launch or nuclear test as top officials gather

    Video Pop Icon Prince Quietly Helped Afghan Orphans for Years

    He sent thousands of dollars to help an aid group rebuild a training center for orphan boy and girl scouts in Kabul, but kept his involvement secret

    Britain’s Muslims See London Mayor Race as Victory

    Mere running of 45-year-old former government minister and son of Pakistani immigrants Sadiq Khan seen by many as turning point

    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.
    Donations Rescue Afghan Parents, Children From Forced Labori
    X
    May 05, 2016 6:44 PM
    A Facebook campaign organized by a VOA radio host raised 150,000 Afghan rupees to rescue a family from forced labor at a brick kiln in Nangarhar province – the result of the father’s unpaid debt. Video by a VOA reporter in Jalalabad went viral this week and triggered the Facebook campaign.
    Video

    Video Donations Rescue Afghan Parents, Children From Forced Labor

    A Facebook campaign organized by a VOA radio host raised 150,000 Afghan rupees to rescue a family from forced labor at a brick kiln in Nangarhar province – the result of the father’s unpaid debt. Video by a VOA reporter in Jalalabad went viral this week and triggered the Facebook campaign.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora