The Delhi High Court has ordered 21 companies, which have already been asked to develop a mechanism to block objectionable material in India, to present their plans for policing their services in the next 15 days. Prosecutors said they would provide the companies with all relevant documents, as the government has asked for a voluntary framework to keep offensive material off the Internet. Google and Facebook both said they have already complied by removing objectionable content.
Facebook India submitted a compliance report to the court Monday, but it also joined Yahoo and Microsoft in questioning its inclusion in the case, saying no specific complaints had been presented against them. Google India meanwhile has removed web pages deemed offensive to Indian political and religious leaders; although the company did not detail which sites were removed, the search giant did say it would go after anything that violated local law or its own standards.
Last month, Facebook and Google even told the Delhi High Court they cannot block offensive content that appears on their services. Although the case was originally filed in a lower court, the companies appealed to the Delhi High Court, challenging the lower court's ruling asking them to take down some content. The high court then pushed back the case till February. If their petitions were to fail, the 21 companies were to face trial in the lower court, which has its next hearing scheduled for March 13. Now it looks like they have even less time: just two weeks.
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 filed a complaint last December saying the websites were showing images that seek "to create enmity, hatred, and communal violence" and "will corrupt minds."
The charge is that they've allowed material offensive to Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. Indian officials have seen illustrations showing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi in compromising positions, as well as pigs running through Islam's holy city of Mecca. The punishment for such offenses can be several years of jail time and financial penalties. Representatives of the 21 companies were thus summoned to court and a long proceeding began.
Siddharth Luthra, one of Facebook's lawyers, earlier 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. India is Facebook's third-fastest growing market, after the U.S. and Indonesia.
Justice Suresh Kait, the judge in the higher court, previously 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." Neeraj Kishan Kaul, one of Google's lawyers, last month replied by saying this was a constitutional issue: not taking away freedom of speech separates democratic India from a totalitarian regime like the one in China.
Last year, India passed a law that makes companies responsible for user content posted on their websites, requiring them to take down anything deemed offensive ("ethnically objectionable," "blasphemous," or "grossly harmful.") 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, especially as Internet use continues to grow.
India is having difficulty balancing conservative religious and political sentiments while also trying to use the Internet to spur the economy and boost living standards for its 1.2 billion people. Although India is democratic (in fact, it's the world's largest democracy), many fear the country's resort to censorship. This case has quickly become a major part of the debate over free speech in the country. The Indian government's stance is that U.S. Internet standards are not acceptable for the country's Internet population of 100 million users, the third largest after China and the U.S.