India Cracks Down on Social Media, Free Speech


It is one of the most populous democracies in South Asia.  A pluralistic subcontinent populated with Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.  Hedonists, ascetics, and Communists.

Anyone who's spent any time in India knows how raucous--and occasionally violent--it can be.  But as religious tensions in the 1 billion plus nation continent continue to flare, the Indian Government has taken the drastic step of requesting 21 tech companies--including Google, Facebook, and Twitter--to censor what the government calls "objectionable material".

According to the tech analysis site Memeburn, the current row began when journalist Vinay Rai filed a complaint in India's lower court, enjoining Google, Facebook, and Yahoo from disseminating images offensive to Christians, Muslims and Hindus.  In addition, the complaint would affect 11 domestic social networking sites as well.

If successful, the complaint could result in criminal charges against Mark Zuckerberg, Jerry Yang, and several other tech CEOs for instigating ethnic hatred.  With the prospect of lengthy prison terms fresh in their minds, the tech titans are fighting back.  Not only did Google's lawyers tell the Indian Government they're unable to comply with the lower court's ruling--they refused to do so.

A hearing is scheduled in the Delhi-based court Mar. 12th.  In an interview with the Wall Street Journal's India Realtime blog, Rai cited the anonymous, unregulated nature of social networking sites as one of the major reasons he brought the case before the Indian court.

"Millions use social networking sites across the globe."  He said in a one-on-one interview.  "Of these, how many users are genuine?  Men pose as women, women pose as men.  People post objectionable, abusive content everyday--who regulates them?  Who holds them accountable?  No one."

In reality, according to Facebook's bylaws, users are forbidden from creating fake profiles.  Fake accounts are routinely deleted and those caught creating them are barred from using the site.  The company takes it so seriously that users are required to register using their legal, given name--a far cry from the Rai's own accusations.

India is no stranger to censorship. Over a year before Rai arrived on the scene, the country's telecommunications minister, Kapil, Sibal, faced a similar controversy when a proposal to block online criticism of religious leaders--not gods or goddesses--circulated through the government.  Indian bloggers and activists protested, resulting in a tabling of the proposal.

When Kapil Sibal floated his plan for the 36 hour internet ban in 2011, he initially approached Facebook with a screenshot of a post critical of Congress party scion--and local hero--Sonia Gandhi.  Despite his pleas, lawyers for the service provider told him their hands were tied.

"We want Facebook to be a place where people can discuss things freely while respecting the rights and feelings and others." Representatives for the company later told CNN-IBN.  "We recognize the government's interest in minimizing the amount of abusive content that is available online and will continue to engage with the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue."

Existing, information technology statutes on the books in India already give officials the authority to remove objectionable content, but the concept of prior restraint in India--a red line in Western democracies--is what really started the latest debate.

India's government has a reason to be nervous. As fallout from the Arab Spring and rising anger at home continues to roil the Indian subcontinent, the fight between the tech titans and the Indian government is likely to escalate.  But as memories of Google's previous acquiesce to another Asian nation--China-- continues to linger, Silicon Valley is vowing not to repeat the same mistake twice.

 

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