DELHI — The rise of social media is clashing with cultural norms in a country where society may not be liberalizing as quickly as the economy.
Journalist Vinay Rai has filed a criminal complaint here against Facebook for allegedly hosting obscene and dangerous material that can cause communal discord and social unrest in a religiously diverse country such as India.
Given the graphic nature of the images, the Indian court has banned their public release. The media, too, has shown restraint in publicizing them.
The lawsuit has been seen more broadly as an attack on free speech since the Indian government joined the fray. After an anti-corruption movement gained traction here, the government moved to block sites and take regressive action against Internet companies that targeted the Congress Party, one of India’s two largest political parties.
SmartPlanet spoke to Rai about why he filed a criminal case — there is also a separate civil suit – against Facebook and what it means for freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy. Several Internet activists oppose his views. “I am not saying that I am against Facebook or any of the social media websites,” he says. “But there has to be a way to control some of the content that is uploaded.”
Rai suggests “self-regulation.” “But the websites like Facebook have not done that,” he says. “I went to court because some blasphemous photographs were brought to my notice that were posted on Facebook.”
Rai insists that companies like Facebook and Google, which keep presences in India for business purposes, should have rules that prevent them from hurting popular sentiment. “They are not here for a social cause,” he says.
Shivam Vij is an independent writer and member of Kafila.org, a popular blog dedicated to the “collaborative practice of radical political and media critique.” Vij counters that the images did not cause any communal riots, unlike the cartoons of the prophet that appeared in the Danish media. “In fact by going to court, the petitioner has actually brought these images under public scrutiny there by risking social unrest,” he says.
Rai recommends that Internet companies should follow the example of Indian television news networks, which formed the National Broadcaster’s Association and a common code for TV channels to follow.
Vij points out that social networking sites and video sharing sites like Orkut and YouTube have been removing pornographic content since 2005. “There are adequate safeguard mechanisms embedded into these sites,” he says. “If a certain number of people feel that the post is inappropriate, the website will pull it down. It cannot be done on the request of just one person.”
Rai argues that flagging content as inappropriate or spam doesn’t ensure that it will be removed. “In fact, these websites should moderate every post that is uploaded. If there is a complaint, the websites should be able locate from where the post was filed or should be able to tell the complainant the IP address so that perpetrator could be traced back,” he says.
Prashant Sugathan, a lawyer and Internet activist, says its “impossible” to have a single set of rules to govern the Internet or moderate sites when one hour of video is uploaded to YouTube every second and 300,000 status updates are posted to Facebook every minute.
“In the case of social networking sites and video sharing sites, everybody can become a publisher. Hence the rules that govern traditional media cannot be used here,” he says. “Instead, what it gives its users is the freedom to refute the contents of any post directly.”
Rai adds that the government wasn’t “proactive” in monitoring Internet sites before he sued Facebook. “If the government wanted it could have stopped these websites from publishing insensitive posts. But it did not. I am not in favor of an external regulator for social networking sites or search engines, but I also feel these websites have not set up their own moderators,” he says.
Vij points out that there has been evident censoring of the Internet in India “ever since the anti-corruption campaign cartoons showing prime minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have appeared on Facebook, something that the government is not at all comfortable with,” he says.
Sugathan notes that the case against Facebook in the Indian courts is interesting because it questions whether an intermediary – which in this case is Facebook India — can be held responsible. The Information Technology Act of 2000 does not make intermediaries liable, he says, pointing to the Section 79 of IT Amendment Act 2008.
The law stipulates that an intermediary cannot be held responsible for sensitive content if it complies with Section 79 and follows the related rules, which include providing a user agreement that asks an individual not to post material that “is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, pedophilic, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever…”
But these new rules are very broad, experts point out. Words such as “blasphemous,” “harmful” and “harassing” have not been defined in court. This could lead to intermediaries taking down content — or leaving it up — according to their own definitions.
In its latest ruling, however, the Delhi High Court rejected Facebook India’s argument that content posted on its website by users in India is exempt from the law because the servers that host the files are located in the United States.
“At this stage, it cannot be said that Facebook India has no say in the running of the website, and there might be a probability that Facebook India provides technical support and programming and developing of the website, and also tests the new software for the same — and thus can have some say in how this website runs in India,” the court said in a public statement.
“It also might be possible that Facebook India is raising revenue for Facebook.com by seeking advertisers from India for Facebook.com,” the court said.
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