Online outrage over India's call to pre-screen content

India's online community up in arms over minister's call for Web materials to be prescreened and offensive content removed to "take care of the sensibilities" of country's people.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor on

India's call for social networks to remove offensive materials has drawn online criticisms surrounding the government's attempt to censor free speech.

The country's telecoms and IT minister Kapil Sibal met executives from Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft yesterday, urging them to screen content by removing disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory material before any of it goes online.

No agreement with the companies was reached, Sibal said in a Reuters report.

Bloggers and Twitter users in India have protested against Sibal's proposals, saying that a "prefiltering system" would limit free expression and be impossible to implement. The hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal emerged as one of India's most tweeted on Tuesday.

"Dear [Kapil Sibal], we're not China. Their leaders can muzzle the Net and stay in power. You'll see you can't," Twitter user "mahestmurthy" said.

Another Twitter user "jhunjhunwala" added that the only thing needing censorship was "Kapil Sibal's mouth."

"The idea of prescreening is impossible," Vijay Mukhi, an India-based cyber security expert said in the report. "How will they do it? There is no technology currently that determines whether content is 'defamatory' or 'offensive'."

Sibal, however, denied in the Reuters report that he was promoting censorship, saying instead that some images and statements on social media risks creating tensions in India, which had "a long history of deadly religious violence". He also revealed that organizations had ignored earlier calls for action.

"We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, [and] protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us," the minister said on Tuesday as he showed reported images taken from the Internet which could offend religious communities.

While it was not clear if Sibal was proposing stricter rules, India's law minister Salman Khurshid later noted that his colleague had been calling for dialogue on offensive content and not censorship.

Google said it already removes content which is illegal or against its own policy. "But when content is legal and doesn't violate our policiy, we won't remove it just because it's controversial as we believe that people's differing views, so long as they're legal, should be respected and protected," the search giant said in a statement.

Facebook also noted in its statement Tuesday that it would remove content that "is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity". "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," said the social networking site.

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