India asks Web firms to pre-screen user content

Pointing to disparaging online content as unacceptable, government wants Web companies including Facebook to remove such material, using people and not automation system, before it goes online.

The Indian government is demanding Web and social media companies, including Google and Facebook, pre-screen user content in the country and remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory material before any of it goes online.

Top executives from the Indian offices of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo will be meeting with Kapil Sibal, India's acting telecommunications minister to discuss the issue, according to two of three unnamed representatives from Internet companies, The New York Times reported Monday.

This would mark the third in a series of meetings which began six weeks ago, when Sibal first gathered lawyers from the tech companies and India's main Internet service providers (ISPs) to his office in New Delhi. There, the minister reportedly showed them a Facebook page containing material that criticized Sonia Gandhi, president of India's Congress Party, and highlighted it as the type of content he wanted removed, the report said.

"This is unacceptable," Sibal said at the meeting, and asked the company representatives to find a way to monitor content posted on their sites, according to the executive.

At the second meeting with the same representatives in late-November, Sibal said he expected the companies to use human beings, not technology, to screen the content. Specifically, he expected them to set up a proactive pre-screening system with staff monitoring and deleting any objectionable content before it is posted online, the report stated.

According to the New York Times, the three sources said the representatives were expected to reject Sibal's request and deem it "impossible" because of the sheer volume of user-generated content originating from India. In addition, the companies cannot be held responsible for deciding what is or is not defamatory or illegal to post.

Google declined comment, while Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft did not respond to queries, the report said.

India's efforts to control electronic content is not new. In January this year, the government battled with Research In Motion (RIM) and demanded access to user data from its BlackBerry Messenger and BlackBerry Internet e-mail. RIM subsequently agreed in order to prevent its services from being blocked in the country.