India Asks Internet Companies To Block “Insulting” Content

Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft executives met with the telecom minister, who urged them to manually screen material before it goes online.

NEW DELHI – The Indian government has urged internet companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to block and remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory user content from India – which has an estimated 100 million Internet users -- before it goes online.

According to reports Tuesday, India's telecom minister Kapil Sibal first had a meeting about six weeks ago with legal representatives from the country's top Internet service providers and Facebook – which has 25 million users in India -- where the minister showed attendees a Facebook page that reportedly maligned Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party which is in power as a coalition heading the current government.

“It was brought to my notice that some of the images and content on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google can offend the religious sentiments of people. These platforms should evolve mechanisms to ensure that such content is removed as soon as they get to know of it... My aim is that insulting material never gets uploaded,” Sibal said Tuesday in a televised press conference in New Delhi.

Sibal added that he approached the major internet companies including Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft for a meeting that took place on Nov. 29 after which in a follow-up meeting on Monday they “came back to me and said we cannot help you. We cannot allow intermediaries to throw up their hands and tell us we cannot do anything about it.  We believe in freedom of the press but this cannot be allowed. All stakeholders in the business of information should be sensitive to the concerns of the community in which they operate. These offensive images should not be allowed anywhere - not in print, TV and on these platforms. ”

Sibal also said that he didn't want to make a media statement until a recent New York Times story reported that the government was trying to censor these sites. “This is far from the truth. If someone does not wants to remove this kind of incendiary material then the government has to do something about it,” he said.

While stressing that the government “does not believe in censorship” Sibal added that he wanted the companies to “come to me with a solution. This is not interference, we are just seeking their cooperation. ”

Sibal added that “we will evolve guidelines – give us a little time. We have not decided on mechanisms yet.  We are not targeting any public functionary or any individual. I am only concerned about the peace and security of this country. ”

While no comment was available from any of the internet companies, reports quoted one unnamed executive who was slated to attend the Monday meeting stating, “If there's a law and there's a court order, we can follow up on it but companies cannot be in the business of deciding whether something is legal to post.”

Meanwhile, online platforms saw many users debating the issue and on Twitter, Kapil Sibal became a trending topic. “Irony: Kapil Sibal wants censorship of content posted and has made sure that more 'hate' posts have got generated on this than ever before,” said a Twitter message posted by Rajiv Makhni, technology editor of leading news network New Delhi Television.

India has the third-largest Internet user base behind China and the United States, estimated to grow to 300 million users in the next three years.