Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

India Weighs Social Media Curbs

Sujoy Dhar

NEW DELHI, Feb 2 2012 (IPS) - After India’s agriculture minister Sharad Pawar was slapped by a young Sikh man at a function in New Delhi, to record his protest against corruption in high places, social media sites went viral with musical spoofs and caricatured images of the incident.

It helped the spoofing artists that the assault on the minister, in November 2011, roughly coincided with the bursting on media channels of a chartbusting song, ‘Kolaveri, Kolaveri, Why this Kolaveri Di?’ (roughly meaning ‘Why this rage?’ in Tamil language).

Almost instantly, news channel footage of the slapping incident, set to the tune of the peppy chartbuster and with added effects to enhance the resounding slap, became a widely circulated status update on ‘Facebook’, the popular social networking site.

The spoof circulated further after someone posted the link on the Facebook wall of ‘India Against Corruption’, the organisation demanding enactment of a strong anti-graft ombudsman law through a movement led by the Gandhian leader Anna Hazare.

Following this demonstration of social media power the Indian government announced plans to formulate a framework to regulate “blasphemous and disparaging” contents posted on social networking platforms like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

India’s telecom minister Kapil Sibal asked representatives of major Internet firms to come up with a solution to prevent the posting of material that may hurt religious sentiments. But they remained non- committal, forcing the government to begin taking steps to formulate a regulatory mechanism.

The judiciary stepped in after a lawsuit filed in the Delhi High Court by a Hindi-Urdu magazine editor demanded that laws banning the sale of obscene books and objects be made applicable to Internet companies.

The judge hearing the case warned that offending Internet sites could be blocked, as in China, if they failed to come up with a way to avoid publishing religiously “offensive and objectionable” content. “Like China, we will block all such websites,” Justice Suresh Kait was quoted as saying.

With social media platforms fast turning into a breeding ground for ideas that propel civil society movements, free speech advocates say the move by the Indian government to censor postings is aimed at gagging public opinion under the guise of safeguarding religious sentiments.

“Any such control is based on fear and insecurity. Rising discontent is being taken seriously by the government, so there is an agenda behind the crackdown on the Internet firms,” says Gaurav Bakshi, a Delhi-based citizen journalist active in Anna Hazare’s anti- corruption movement.

“The government is looking out for potential threats to its power, and now that media is covering such issues as corruption we feel concerned,” Bakshi told IPS.

Vinay Rai, the magazine editor who had filed the criminal lawsuit against the Internet companies, says Internet firms can easily develop mechanisms to block offensive content.

“If they can do business here in India and earn so much, why cannot they also take responsibility and spend something on building a mechanism to block disparaging information?” Rai asked, speaking with IPS.

“We are enjoying freedom of speech, but it does not mean you can hurt religious sentiments of people, or do something that the freedom we enjoy is taken away from us,” says Rai.

Media activists already see the government moves as a ploy to curb free speech, especially on the raging issue of corruption.

“It is a myth that the Indian government cannot be like China,” says Bakshi, who feels that a move by the government to restrict the number of SMS (short message service over mobile phones) that can be sent in a day was a response to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement.

Jillian C. York, director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, in a column on Indian censorship attempts published on Jan. 20 in Al Jazeera, wrote that “unlike books and paintings, online expression cannot easily be hidden from view.

“Try as it might, the Indian government has not managed to succeed in limiting speech it finds distasteful; the offending content, even when blocked, remains accessible to savvy internet users through use of simple proxies,” she wrote.

According to York, censorship of social media has the potential to push India’s Internet users over the edge, like the street protestors in Tunisia.

Blogger and independent journalist Divyanshu Dutta Roy believes that “the independence of the web is what truly makes it wonderful.

“When it comes to offending religious sentiments, I think it will only offend someone if they are looking to be offended,” Roy said. “The Internet is not the property of some sensitive religious faction; if they don’t like what is being published online, they can simply avoid such web pages.

“A search engine works by letting loose little robot programmes on theIinternet called crawlers that index content on websites,” said Roy, an expert on technology issues. “I think we are still quite far from the day when these robots can be trained enough to judge what is religiously offensive.”

While the government’s faceoff with the Internet giants rages, a top official from Google said that considering the volume of data posted online daily, it is practically impossible to prescreen it.

Senior vice-president and chief business officer of Google Nikesh Arora told an Indian TV channel at the World Economic Forum in Davos late January that they are “still open to requests for taking down offensive content once it has been reported by the government or anybody else.”

“I think what we are trying to explain is the enormity of what is being asked. You are asking to not just censor the web in India, you are asking to censor the entire world wide web. The web has no borders,” Arora said.

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