India’s dreams of web censorship

by Sunil Abraham last modified Mar 26, 2012 06:59 AM
If you are offended by this post, please contact Kapil Sibal, India’s telecoms and IT minister, and he will make sure it is promptly taken down.

Actually, if Sibal has his way and you are offended by this post, the armies of people to be employed by internet companies operating in India to monitor their sites for potentially offensive material – whether it originates in India or abroad – will ensure that it is removed before it can even be published. And good luck to all of them with that.

That, anyway, was the gist of Sibal’s combative press conference in the courtyard of his Delhi home on Tuesday, the day after the New York Times reported he had met executives from Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft to discuss the preemptive removal of “offensive material”.

The press conference was prompted by uproar that swept Twitter on Monday night – one of the sites, incidentally, that Sibal would like to monitor – and was carried live on all major news channels.

Social networking sites have gained a lot of traction in India and are much used by politicians, celebrities and the burgeoning, young middle class.

"I believe that no reasonable person aware of the sensibilities of large sections of communities in this country and aware of community standards as they are applicable in India would wish to see this content in the public domain," Sibal said, referring to "offensive material" he had shown some reporters prior to the conference. He added that the government did not believe in censorship.

According to the NYT, Sibal showed a group of IT execs a Facebook page that criticized Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party, calling it "unacceptable".

"We will remove any content that violates our terms, which are designed to keep material that is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity off the service," Facebook said in a statement.

Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment. Google said it would issue a statement later in the day.

Sibal first approached the companies on September 5, giving them four weeks to present proposals for how they might comply with his request, he said. With no response by October 19, the ministry sent a reminder. On November 29, Sibal again met with the IT execs. They responded on Monday, saying they could not comply.

An Indian employee of one of foreign tech company, when asked about Sibal’s demand that each outfit set up dedicated teams to monitor content in real time, let out an extended, almost hysterical laugh, before regaining composure and asking: "Do you know how many users we have?"

Indeed, even in a country with low internet penetration like India – 100m people regularly use the internet, less than 10 per cent of India’s 1.2bn population – the task of monitoring real-time content generated on millions of sites opens up legal wormholes and is technically impossible, Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet & Society, told beyondbrics.


"Technically what he’s asking for is an impossibility: it’s not possible in the age of web 2.0 to manually curate or censor social media content," he said. “This is obvious to all of us. Isn’t it strange that the minister of IT, who seems to understand a lot of complex issues, is actually in favour of something like this?"

Abraham warned that the focus on blasphemous and vaguely defined "offensive" speech was dangerous, noting that the Hindu profession of belief in multiple gods is blasphemous to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

But Sibal was defiant.

Asked what would be deemed "offensive", he said: “We will define it, don’t worry, certainly, we will evolve guidelines…to ensure that such blasphemous content” is not publicly available in India.

Asked whether his idea was technically feasible, he responded: "It is a feasible proposition, and we will inform you how as and when, we will inform you as and when."

When it was pointed out that the internet was a global phenomenon and that content originating outside of India might be hard to control, Sibal said: "We will certainly ask [companies] to give us information even on content posted outside of India – we will ask them for information, we will evolve guidelines and mechanisms to deal with the issue."

So, again, if you are offended by this post, feel free to drop him a line. And good luck.

The original blog post was published by the Financial Time's beyondbrics on December 6, 2011. Sunil Abraham was quoted in this blog post. Read it here

 

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