MUMBAI: India is stepping up efforts to require Facebook Inc, Google Inc and other internet portals to remove content that may offend religious groups or incite political violence in the world’s second-most populous nation.
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology will meet today with internet and social-media companies, bloggers and other content producers to discuss ways to minimize postings that may be deemed provocative, said a ministry official, who declined to be identified because the session hasn’t been publicized. The official wouldn’t name the companies.
The government is increasing monitoring of the internet after recent terror attacks and as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faces criticism for corruption in his administration. Some of India’s 38 million Facebook users have used the site to support an anti-corruption movement, led by a hunger striker, that has disrupted parliament and held massive rallies.
“The government has to tread that line very carefully,” said Jagannadham Thunuguntla, chief strategist at SMC Wealth Management Services Ltd in New Delhi. “If they cross over that line into censorship, they will be in trouble.”
Kapil Sibal, the minister of communications and information technology, has denied that the government intends to censor free speech.
Kumiko Hidaka, a spokeswoman for Facebook, did not respond to two phone calls to her office and an e-mail. Google India’s spokesman, Gaurav Bhaskar, declined to comment.
India’s government has held at least six meetings since September 5 with Facebook, Google, Twitter Inc and Yahoo! Inc asking them to manage content and block offensive material, Sibal said December 6.
On December 7, Google said it will “continue to remove” content in India that is illegal or breaks the company’s terms of service.
Sites such as YouTube and Google+ “help users to express themselves and share different points of view,” according to an e-mailed statement from the Mountain View, California-based company’s local unit.
Sibal’s deputy, Sachin Pilot, said yesterday the government “does not want to censor” the Internet. The ministry instead is trying to address complaints from Internet users offended by online content, he said in an interview.
“If anything is done with the singular focus of only creating disharmony or communal tensions, or done with the singular intent of being insensitive, I think that issue needs to be addressed,” Pilot said.
A sectarian divide has fueled decades of violence in Asia’s third-largest economy. There are more than 138 million Muslims in the majority-Hindu population, comprising about 13 per cent of the total. Other religious minorities include Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains.
India has been plagued by terrorism in recent years, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead, and bomb blasts in Mumbai and New Delhi this year.
“Responsible behavior is much desired,” Pilot said.
The constitution says the right of free speech is subject to “reasonable” restrictions in the interests of state security, public order and “decency or morality.”
The Information Technology Act of 2008 gives Sibal’s ministry authority to tell Web portals to block sites and requires companies to designate a point of contact for receiving those government requests.
Failure to comply with the orders within 36 hours can result in fines and imprisonment for up to seven years.
“There is going to be such a fury, and this anti- establishment opposition is gaining so much steam, the government will have to back down,” said Kamal Chenoy, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of International Studies. “This is the government playing Big Brother.”
Singh’s government has been assailed by allegations of graft and policy drift for more than a year after former Cabinet minister Andimuthu Raja, a lawmaker and company executives were charged with conspiring in 2008 to sell permits to run mobile- phone services at below-market rates. Sibal succeeded Raja.
The government auditor said last year the “unbelievably low” sale prices may have deprived the treasury of as much as 1.4 trillion rupees ($26 billion) in revenue. Trials are ongoing.
The last four sessions of parliament have been disrupted by opposition parties criticizing the administration for corruption and inflation above 9 per cent. Anna Hazare, the 73-year-old hunger striker, is leading the campaign against corruption and has demanded the government enact a law strengthening the graft- fighting agency called Lokpal.
India fell four places in a global ranking of corruption perception to a position below Liberia and Colombia. The world’s second-most populous nation was 95th of 183 countries in the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index published this month by Berlin-based Transparency International. The lower the ranking, the more corrupt a nation is perceived to be.
India had about 89 million people using the Web at the end of last year, compared with more than 450 million in China, the world’s largest internet market, according to the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva.
China, South Korea
Facebook’s number of active accounts in India jumped 37 per cent to 38 million in the last six months, according to socialbakers.com, which tracks user data at the Palo Alto, California-based company. That’s the third-highest in the world behind 156 million in the US and 40.8 million in Indonesia. The company opened an office in the southern city of Hyderabad last year.
Facebook is blocked in China, the world’s most-populous nation. The social-networking company has held talks with potential partners about how to gain a foothold there, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News in April.
China bans pornography, gambling and content critical of the ruling Communist Party.
South Korea is also stepping up scrutiny of online media. The Korea Communications Standards Commission set up a team to monitor and censor social-networking sites, mobile applications and online ads, according to a December 1 statement from the regulator.