Facebook censorship in India reaches a high water mark

What's most worrying for users in the country is that even innocuous comments can get you jail time here

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India is filled with folks who love to indulge in passionate arguments and debate. This has always been one of the country's singular characteristics. Spirited, informed debate in India has dovetailed with its resilient democracy (as well as relative freedom of speech, at least when compared to some of its neighbours) as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has referenced in his book 'The Argumentative Indian.' 

However, scratch beneath the surface and you may find a wellspring of illiberalism.

Fielding one of the most complex and richest tapestries of cultures and religions in the world makes keeping the peace amongst various constituents a gargantuan and complicated task. The era of social media—which India finds itself squarely in the middle of—makes this all the more onerous as it has become so much easier for individuals to sound off without any checks and balances. 

So, keeping this in mind, it may not be such a bad thing for the Indian government to step in and douse potential conflagrations before they reach dangerous levels. Consequently, the Indian government censored content on the social media site 4,765 times between July and December last year—highest amongst all countries—although it's unclear as to how many of those were illiberal acts in order to muzzle legitimate opinions and ideas and how many were done to stem the outpouring of offensive vitriol

Second on the list for censorship was Turkey which apparently curbed 2,014 posts because they didn’t speak very favourably of former Turkish leader Ataturk or the country itself.

When it comes information requests, the US arm of Facebook was the leader in disclosing 81 percent of the 12,598 requests made to it by the US government reportedly because of law enforcement reasons. Then came the UK wing of Facebook (allowing 71 percent of 1,906 requests) and then India (granting 54 percent of 3,598 requests).  

"We carefully assess whether we are legally required to comply," said Facebook General Counsel, Colin Stretch. "As we have long emphasized, we push back on requests that are overly broad, vague or do not comply with legal standards. When we are required to provide information, in most instances we share basic information only – such as name and IP address," he added.

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Despite the impressive run of democracy in such a potentially contentious environment, India has had numerous instances of illiberalism when it comes to religious nationalists banning scholarly works of history and even works of art.

Business family houses, such as Reliance, were successful in getting a book on industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani banned. Mukesh Ambani, head of Reliance Industries is now busy suing the authors of bookGas Wars—Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis—that apparently paints one his companies in the business of gas production in an unflattering light.

If you think that you or I are above the fray in this department—after all, we’re not all churning out controversial books or  works of art—think again. In late 2012, Shaheen Dhada, 21 years old, complained to a friend on Facebook about how frustrating it was that Mumbai had a complete shutdown following the death of Hindu Nationalist party the Shiv Sena’s maximum leader Bal Thackeray. A few hours later she was carted off to jail under the pretext that she was hurting a community’s sentiments.

Markandey Katju, chairman of India's Press Council and a former Supreme Court judge, wrote, that "it is absurd to say that protesting against a bandh hurts religious sentiments. Under Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution freedom of speech is a guaranteed fundamental right. We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act since under sections 341 and 342 it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime."

That might not keep you away from the slammer so next time you want to express yourself in this country, you better check yourself before doing so.