Centre for Internet & Society
Social Media 1, Indian Government 0

Abhishek Manu Singhvi at his residence in New Delhi, in this September 2, 2011 file photo.

The futility of the Indian government’s attempts to control what is posted on Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites was thrown into high relief this week, after a video purportedly showing Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singvi having sex in his office resulted in his resignation.

Social Media 1, Indian Government 0

Abhishek Manu Singhvi at his residence in New Delhi, in this September 2, 2011 file photo.

The article by Heather Timmons was published in the New York Times on April 26, 2012

Mr. Singhvi, who also is a prominent lawyer, said the video was a fake, but resigned from his spokesman spot and from a parliamentary law committee he headed Monday evening, to “prevent even the slightest possible parliamentary disruption,” he said in a statement.

The video, which has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube and other social media sites, is neither explicit, nor immediately incriminating – most of it appears to show little more than the top of Mr. Singhvi’s balding head, in profile, bobbing above the top of his desk. He might be waxing his office floor, or searching somewhat frantically for a dropped contact lens.

Still, a Delhi High Court injunction on April 13 banned television stations from broadcasting the video, which was originally distributed to media outlets on a CD. Perhaps frustrated by their inability to show the footage in question, India’s television news stations have been engaged in unusually highbrow debate about whether India actually needs stricter privacy laws for public figures.

There’s no such talk on social media sites, though.

The video was quickly posted on Facebook, Pirate’s Bay and other social media and video-sharing sites. While a Facebook page especially created for it has been taken down, there are now dozens of versions of the video on YouTube, in increasingly pixelated versions as users copy and post it again and again. (One YouTube user even helpfully posted a video of the Facebook page, and filmed the process of opening all the links on the page.)

Social media companies received requests from Indian law enforcement officials and court orders asking them to remove the video, which they did, executives in social media companies said on background. But it kept popping up again and again.

Tejinder Pal Singh Bagga of the Delhi-based Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, a right-wing group, told wire service IANS that he posted the video on Twitvid, which allows users to distribute videos via Twitter. “I am not afraid of these people and they deserve this,” he said. “I am prepared for any consequences,” he said.

Facebook officials said they couldn’t comment on the situation. The page in question that featured the Singhvi video was created with by a “fake” user, which is against Facebook’s rules.

Google received a copy of a generic court order from Mr. Singhvi’s lawyers on April 24 asking it to remove the video, which it followed.

“Our policy prohibits inappropriate content, on YouTube and our community effectively polices the site for inappropriate material,” the company said in an e-mailed statement. Inappropriate material includes videos that “contain pornography, harassment, content that violates privacy, illegal acts or explicit violence violate the YouTube community guidelines,” it said. Users can flag content they feel is inappropriate, she said, and then the company’s staff reviews the content and removes it if it violates guidelines. “In addition, Google acts to promptly remove an offending video if a court order requires it,” the statement said.

But since Google has taken down the first offensive videos and copies of videos, others have sprung up. Per Google’s general policy, these will only be removed if YouTube users or others complain about them.

On Wednesday, the Delhi High Court dismissed a petition by the Bar Council of Delhi (of which Mr. Singhvi is a member) seeking to take action against Mr. Singhvi’s driver, who had allegedly originally distributed the CD.

Investigating who first introduced the video to social media sites and circulated it there is next to impossible, Internet experts say.

“No country, even though its law might say so, is able to exercise jurisdiction across the world” on the Internet, said Sunil Abraham, the executive director of Bangalore’s Center for Internet and Society, a research and advocacy group. Because India does not have a bilateral cyber-crime agreement with the United States (as the European Union does), getting American companies like Facebook and Google to take down or investigate the source of content that offends Indian government officials can be a slow and cumbersome process, he said.

The Indian government may never be able to track down who first posted the video, Mr. Abraham said. “Drawing a chain of causality and trying to arrive at the first person who introduced it onto the Internet is a bit of a complicated task,” he said. “Even if you find one version of the story, there might be another one,” he said. In addition, the Indian government might only be able to access records from Indian telecommunications providers, he said, and related to Indian ISP addresses.

 A screenshot of the YouTube page displaying several video clips that show up with the search terms “Abhishek Manu Singhvi sex CD.”