DELHI -- Religious leaders in India are on a collision course with social media websites including Google, Facebook and Yahoo. Two Indian courts recently asked these American companies as well as 19 other websites to take down "anti-religious" material. They are now required to report their compliance by February.
Information technology minister Kapil Sibal also met with a delegation of different faith groups who are worried that certain internet content could lead to communal discord. India's 1.2 billion people are made up of majority Hindus but it also has the third largest population of Muslims as well as large number of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and other faiths.
India has an estimated 100 million internet users--the third largest in the world after U.S and China. The proposed restrictions are not at all comparable to China's but is the internet free enough for the world's largest democracy?
Some observers are suspicious that promoting religious or social harmony is a front for censoring the internet. Sunil Abraham, head of Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), said that "traditional intellectual property rights holders like movie studios, music companies and software vendors are trying to protect their obsolete business models by pushing for the adoption of blanket surveillance and filtering technologies."
"They have found common cause with both totalitarian and so-called democratic regimes across the world interested in protecting the political status-quo after upheavals like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Anonymous and the Pirate Party," he said.
The Indian government has tried to reassure the public that it is not trying to censor. Google's Transparency Report, however, recorded that out of the 358 items requested to be removed by the Indian government from Jan-June 2011, 255 had to do with government criticism and only a handful with hate speech.
Sibal has also been speaking to executives from Facebook, Yahoo and Google in India. But no agreement has been reached on taking down hate speech. New rules, issued in April, require internet intermediaries like Facebook and Yahoo to check for "unlawful" material and take it down.
CIS will soon be releasing a report called "Intermediary Liability in India: Chilling Effects on Free Expression on the Internet 2011." For the report, CIS conducted a sting operation by sending flawed takedown notices to seven intermediaries. The results showed that six intermediaries over-complied with the notices. "From the responses from the intermediaries don't have sufficient legal competence or unwilling to dictate resources to determine legality of an online expression," Abraham said.
"Various pretexts like national security, protection of children, crackdown on online crime and terrorism, defense against cyber war etc are used to compromise civil liberties and clamp down on freedom of expression," he added.