Centre for Internet & Society

Kapil Sibal’s demand that Internet companies self-censor users’ content is just the latest move by the Indian government to restrict information on Facebook and other social media Web sites. This article by Heather Simmons was published in the New York Times on December 7, 2011.

The most stringent government push came in April, when the “Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011” were introduced.

The rules require “intermediaries,” companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo that provide the platform for users to comment and create their own content, to respond quickly if individuals complain that content is “disparaging” or “harassing,” among other complaints. If the complainant’s claim is valid, these companies must take down the offensive information within 36 hours.

So, what impact have these rules had so far?

A yet-to-be-published study by the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore concludes that free speech on the Internet in India is already being curtailed in a “chilling” manner.

Rather than carefully studying take-down notices, intermediaries are erring “on the side of caution,” the report says, and over-complying after complaints are filed, perhaps because they don’t have the legal or administrative manpower to examine every complaint.

In the study, a researcher working for C.I.S. sent notices to intermediaries in seven different situations, saying he found specific user-generated material offensive. In six of the seven, these companies took down the “offensive” material, and often removed more than was asked for. (In the seventh case, the researcher asked a shopping portal to remove information on one brand of diapers, saying they caused diaper rash and were therefore harmful to minors. The shopping site rejected the request, calling it frivolous.)

The study does not name the specific intermediaries involved, but they are understood to be the big social media and Internet companies that dominate the industry.

Two examples:

  1. The researcher objected to a comment below an article on a news Web site about the Telangana movement, which aims to create a separate state in Andhra Pradesh. The comment, which was well-written and not obscenity-laced, condemned the violence in the Telangana movement and called its leaders selfish, but supported the cause over all. The researcher wrote the intermediary that the comment was “racially and ethnically objectionable” and “defamatory.”

    The researcher received no written response, but within 72 hours the intermediary had taken down not just the “offensive” comment, but all 15 comments that were published below the article.

  2. The researcher sent a take-down notice to another intermediary, defined as a “host and information location tool,” asking that it remove three links provided on its search engine after entering the words “online gambling.” The links, the researcher complained, were “relating or encouraging money-laundering or gambling,” which is illegal under the April rules.

The intermediary wrote back to the complainant, saying that the intermediary’s search engine was a “mere conduit” with no control over the information passing through its platform.

But it subsequently removed the three links mentioned in the take-down notice, and all other URLs of the three Web sites, including their subdomains.

The rules seem to encourage “privately administered injunctions to censor and chill free expression,” C.I.S. says. A third party whose information has been removed is not informed about the take-down request or given a chance to defend itself.

The study’s results show the “rules are procedurally flawed as they ignore all elements of natural justice,” C.I.S. concludes.

 The original was published in the New York Times