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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs