Facebook and Google told the Delhi High Court today that they cannot block offensive content that appears on their services. The two Internet giants are among 21 companies that have been asked to develop a mechanism to block objectionable material in India, and the Indian government has given the green light for their prosecution. Although India is democratic (in fact, it's the world's largest democracy), many fear the country will resort to censorship.
Last year, India passed a law that makes companies responsible for user content posted on their websites, requiring them to take it down within 36 hours in case of a complaint. Civil rights groups are opposed to the law but politicians argue posting offensive images in the socially conservative country with a history of violence between religious groups presents a danger to the public as Internet use grows. Both Facebook and Google have previously said they can't and won't censor content in the country, but now they're asking a high court to reverse a lower court's decision.
The case causing all this brouhaha first began with a private complaint filed by journalist Vinay Rai against "21 social networking sites." The list features 10 foreign-based companies, and could affect websites provided by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and YouTube. He complained the websites were showing images deemed offensive to Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. Representatives of the 21 companies were thus summoned to court and a long proceeding began.
Although the case was originally filed in a lower court, the companies have appealed to the Delhi High Court, challenging the lower court's ruling asking them to take down some content. Siddharth Luthra, one of Facebook's lawyers, told the court it was impossible for the social network to pre-screen and monitor everything and that instead users should be held responsible for content they post.
Google argued in a similar vein. "The search engine only takes you till the website," said Neeraj Kishan Kaul, one of Google's lawyers, according to Reuters. "What happens after that is beyond a search engine's control. "If you use blocks, which is very easy for people to say, you will inadvertently block other things as well. For example: the word 'sex'. Even a government document like a voter ID list or a passport has the word 'sex'."
The lower court has its next hearing scheduled for March 13, 2012. The high court will resume hearing the case later this week on January 19, according to Justice Suresh Kait. This is the same judge who last week threatened to block the websites if they don't comply. When the companies in question told him they have a global policy of non-interference even if content posted on their services are found to be obscene or objectionable, he responded by saying this policy won't work in India.
Kait was quoted as saying: "Like China, we too can block such websites." Today, Kaul replied, according to The Times of India: "The issue relates to a constitutional issue of freedom of speech and expression and suppressing it was not possible as the right to freedom of speech in democratic India separates us from a totalitarian regime like China."