Centre for Internet & Society

India’s government is facing fierce criticism from privacy groups, political opponents and irate internet users accusing it of an excessive and poorly targeted censorship drive as it seeks to contain social alarm triggered by communal unrest.

This article written by James Crabtree in Mumbai and Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco was published in Financial Times on August 24, 2012. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

Following panicked scenes among groups from the nation’s troubled north-east and fearing an escalation of urban violence between Muslim and Hindu groups, the administration this week instructed internet companies, including Facebook and Google, to block more than 300 web pages and more than a dozen Twitter accounts it claimed were inflaming communal tensions.

But by Friday the order was being assailed as an example of administrative incompetence, as internet analysts revealed that many of the pages contained seemingly harmless material from foreign media organisations, political columnists and critics of India’s government.

Pranesh Prakash, a legal expert at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, said: “I am not questioning their original motives, but I do think this is excessive and incompetent censorship.”

Political opponents also accused the government of over-reach, including Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of the state Gujarat and a member of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, who on Friday used a Twitter post to call the moves a “crackdown on freedom of speech”.

The government denies it is being heavy handed. “We are only taking strict action against those accounts or people which are causing damage or spreading rumours,” said Kuldeep Dhatwalia, an Indian home ministry spokesman. “We are not taking action against other accounts, be it on Facebook, Twitter or even SMSes.”

Twitter found itself at the centre of the growing controversy, as government spokespeople accused the US-based social networking site of failing to respond to requests to block users, some of which involved accounts appearing to impersonate Manmohan Singh, the prime minister.

Twitter responded by suspending a number of impersonator accounts and is now in discussions with the prime minister’s office in an attempt to defuse the row, according to people familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment.

Angry users also used the site to attack the restrictions using the hashtags #GOIblocks and #Emergency2012, the latter a highly charged reference to prime minister Indira Gandhi’s two-year period of rule by decree in the late 1970s.

India has a long history of censorship measures designed to prevent communal violence, ranging from restrictions introduced under the British Raj in the early 20th century to more recent edicts banning Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and restricting derogatory portrayals of religious figures in Bollywood movies.

“Blocking content to help mitigate a volatile situation involving civilian security could be justified,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But when the government expresses equal concern about fake Twitter handles or criticism of political leaders, it begins to look like censorship.”

The online restrictions followed related measures restricting to five the number of text messages that could be sent from most Indian mobile phones, although this was lifted to 20 on Thursday.

They also came during a week of deepening political crisis in the world’s largest democracy, as opposition leaders repeatedly halted parliamentary proceedings and called for Mr Singh’s resignation in the aftermath of a critical report from India’s government auditor.

“These threats to social harmony are real, but like almost everything the Indian state is doing at present, the restrictions incompetently deal with a few symptoms rather than addressing causes,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi. “They are simply exacerbating a crisis of trust, not solving it.”