Reuters | Dec 6, 2011, 04.42PM IST
NEW DELHI: India has urged social network companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove offensive material, unleashing a storm of criticism from Internet users in the world’s largest democracy complaining of censorship.
Telecoms and information technology minister Kapil Sibal met executives from Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft on Monday to ask them to screen content, but no agreement with the companies was reached.
Sibal denied he was promoting censorship and said some of the images and statements on social media sites risked fanning tensions in India, which has a long history of deadly religious violence.
A New York Times report on Monday that said Sibal called executives about six weeks ago and showed them a Facebook page that maligned ruling Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi and told them it was “unacceptable”.
The government is very sensitive to criticism of the Gandhi family. Last year there were moves to block the English translation of a Spanish novel about Sonia Gandhi’s life.
“We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us,” Sibal told reporters on Tuesday.
Sibal said his ministry was working on guidelines for action against companies who did not respond to the government’s requests, but did not specify what action could be taken.
“We’ll certainly evolve guidelines to ensure that such blasphemous material is not part of content on any platform.”
India’s largely unrestricted Internet access stands in contrast to tight controls in fellow Asian economic powerhouse China. But in line with many other government’s around the world, India has become increasingly edgy about the power of social media.
India’s bloggers and Twitter users scorned the minister’s proposals, saying a prefiltering system would limit free expression and was impossible to implement. The phrase #IdiotKapilSibal was one of India’s most tweeted on Tuesday.
“The idea of prescreening is impossible. How will they do it?…There is no technology currently that determines whether content is ‘defamatory’ or ‘offensive’,” India-based cyber security expert Vijay Mukhi told Reuters.
The New York Times report, which Sibal did not confirm or deny, was the focus of much of the online anger directed at the minister on Tuesday.
“I love Sonia Gandhi. She is awesome. She is God. And never wrong about anything, ever.” (This msg is approved by Kapil Sibal’s cyber cell),” posted twitter user Sorabh Pant.
Indian authorities were taken aback in the summer by an anti-corruption campaign that multiplied on Facebook and Twitter, drawing tens of thousands of people to street protests and forcing the government to agree to new anti-graft laws.
Last year, as part of a broader electronic security crackdown, Indian security agencies demanded access to communications sent through highly secure BlackBerry devices of Canadian smartphone maker Research In Motion.
RIM gave India access to its consumer services, including its Messenger services, but said it could not allow monitoring of its enterprise email.
Facebook said it recognized the government’s wish to minimize the amount of offensive content on the web. The California-based company said it removes content that violates company rules on nudity and inciting violence and hatred.
“(We) will continue to engage the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue,” Facebook said in a statement.
Yahoo India declined to comment and Google said it would comment later in the day.
India now has 100 million Internet users, less than a tenth of the country’s population of 1.2 billion. It is the third-largest user base behind China and the United States. It is seen swelling to 300 million users in the next three years.
During last year’s clampdown, officials also said Google and Skype would be sent notices to set up local servers to allow full monitoring of email and messenger communications.
Britain also faced criticism last month for considering curbs on social media after recent riots even as Foreign Secretary William Hague castigated countries that block the Internet to stifle protests.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor on his twitter account announced that he was not in favour of censoring content on the Internet only to retreat his statement minutes later. “As a frequent victim of “disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content” on social media, I wish2stress I’m not in favour of censoring it, ” Tharoor said initially.
But soon after talking to Sibal, he felt assured that Sibal was opposed to political censorship and concerned only about “communally inflammatory images&language which he described.” In support of his colleague, Tharoor tweeted: “Have to say I support Kapil Sibal on the examples he gave me: deeply offensive material about religions&communities that could incite riots…… Pretty vile stuff. Sadly public didn’t object2them 1st…..all societies observe certain restraints re language&images acceptable in public.”
Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah showing his support for Kapil Sibal tweeted: “I hate the idea of censorship but have seen for myself how dangerous inflammatory content on #facebook & #youtube can be. We want the luxury of free speech but not the burden of responsibility for how we use that freedom. Something will have to give. If push came to shove I’d come down on the side of freedom of speech but its one of those freedoms that has me worried unfortunately. How come all of you going nuts over Kapil Sibal’s proposal also go nuts when Hurriyat leaders go on anti-India rants???? Freedom of speech??”
BJP MP Varun Gandhi however opposed Sibal’s proposal for censorship: “The Internet is the only truly democratic medium free of vested interests,media owners & paid-off journos. Can see why Sibal wants to gag it.”
Sonia G is unlikely to be amused – RJ. Sibal wants to protect Sonia Gandhi from social media — Tristan Stewart Robertson
Mr Sibal, why are you showing people “dirty pictures?”
R Jagannathan Dec 6, 2011
Dear Mr Sibal,
Thank you for alerting us about the extreme dangers of uncontrolled freedom and abuse on the Internet and social media.
If it had not been for your “sensitivity” and alertness to such objectionable content, the whole of India would not have been googling for these objectionable pictures.
I was blissfully unaware of the kind of putrid stuff people have been pasting, morphing and texting on Facebook and Twitter till you told me about it. Now I know all about it – and so do millions of people in the world.
No one was aware he or she needed to be offended about something they didn’t know about. Now, you have told them what to expect and effectively requested them to get offended.
In your press interaction on Tuesday, you asked journos whether they thought the pictures you showed them were really kosher or not. You didn’t get the reply you wanted (we heard someone muttering about freedom, etc), but here’s my poser: why are you busy alerting all and sundry about pictures or text you don’t want anybody to see?
No one was aware he or she needed to be offended about something they didn’t know about. Reuters
Why are you trying to educate your party colleagues on these issues — thus making a dead issue go viral, prompting one former cabinet colleague to tweet about it? Shashi Tharoor said it was “Pretty vile stuff”. Why are you showing people “vile” stuff?
Tharoor has tweeted about “communally inflammatory images and languages” which you apparently “described” to him. Why are you giving descriptions on communally-sensitive pictures to people you meet or talk to?
If I wanted my kids to not watch porn on the net, I would install a net nanny quietly and not actually show them the pictures and say don’t look at these pictures. Even better, I would tell them watching porn isn’t criminal, but don’t go overboard thinking all this is for real.
Coming back to you point, let me be clear. I am not in favour of anyone posting any vile stuff anywhere – but, surely, Mr Sibal, you know that the Internet is no man’s land? It is simply impossible to censor and police and subjugate. The only way to deal with the issue of defamation is to take people to court when something really “vile” is said or pasted — which will teach them a salutary lesson.
I understand the potential of the Internet to inflame communal and religious passions, but, who knows, it may also be getting people to let off steam in cyberspace and preventing them from descending on the streets.
The real problem is that free speech will offend or hurt many people, but it is the only thing that finally keeps ordinary humans from crossing the line from anger to violence.
Take the case of the DNA article in which Subramanian Swamy said some objectionable things about Islam a couple of months ago. He is being sued in courts for the same. If what he said was really defamatory, he will pay for it legally. But there are people who feel he said the truth, and Facebook and Twitter have people elevating him to hero status. Should we ban all this?
The people offended by it have done the right thing by not making the fuss you did.
You are, of course, a poliltician. Maybe, you saw some possibility of political gain by pointing out that Sonia Gandhi and other party leaders are being maligned.
But let me tell you, Sonia is unlikely to be amused. Till two days ago, only the people posting the stuff knew about it. Now everybody does. Thanks to you.
You are also unlikely to emerge with a halo after all this, especially after you muttered darkly about rules and guidelines that sounded suspiciously like censorship to everyone. My condolences in advance.
Censorship is easy – just get Kapil Sibal to say something “stupid”
6 December 2011
Really? Someone else suggesting censoring Facebook? In this seemingly endless year of relentless news, you could be easily forgiven for thinking Kapil Sibal’s comments about Facebook are redundant.
The acting telecommunications minister is in fine company. This year has seen shutdowns of the internet in various Middle East, calls for restriction of social media during civil unrest by British Prime Minister David Cameron, and just last week Facebook was ordered by judges in the US to remove pages for fake products such as imitation Chanel.
Of course, Sibal hasn’t just commented. He’s acted. In fact, according to the New York Times who broke the story, he has been working for months to get content screened in advance.
It’s very unlikely that Sibal will succeed in building the great digital wall of India: Reuters
Technologically speaking, this is, obviously, impossible. The net would move so slowly as to require a hand crank to get it going if every social media comment or blog post had to be cleared first. And it clashes directly with India’s Minister of State for Information and Communications Technology Sachin Pilot who, in a press release before the London Conference on Cyberspace last month, said: “India’s ambitious National e-Governance Plan to create a citizen-centric and business centric environment and to connect every Indian to the information highway.”
Yes, India is so citizen centric it wants to check what citizens think before they speak, and so business centric it hauls in multi-national mega-firms and orders them to cut off a limb.
Mr Sibal is at least correct in identifying that the digital age makes it really easy to offend people. It’s not that people are more offensive, though the internet and social media has freed us to put more of the thoughts in our heads into public view, preserved for eternity. But people are more easily offended, because that same technology allows you to react to comments made half a world away by faceless “others”.
That’s certainly one of the many flaws of Mr Sibal’s desire for screening content in advance: half of the stuff he would want to go after probably didn’t originate in India. Build a Great Digital Wall of India and you might protect sensitive sensibilities, but business would grind to a halt.
Control of information is, as I’ve written before, the prime motivation of everyone now. Companies such as Facebook and Google want all your information to make money off advertising. Governments want all your information because they’re afraid of what you might be doing or thinking. And journalists and activists want all information because they believe openness makes the world safer.
And the public? They’re too busy to notice. They just want to be able to react, as social media was created to facilitate.
Twitter has been flooded with reaction to Mr Sibal’s comments. I agree that free speech is the first and most fundamental of rights. Without it, you can’t call for all the other rights humans are given, or inherit, depending on your view.
But even if Mr Sibal somehow managed to build the Great Digital Wall of India, he still couldn’t silence people in their homes, on the streets or even in parliament. Because free speech is such a fundamental right, particularly in the digital age, it is also the easiest topic to get people riled up about. Serious topics don’t fit into 140 characters. “Sibal is an idiot” is nice and compact.
Mr Sibal might not be protecting the morals of the nation, but he’s certainly managing to distract the nation from anything else going on. Think of it as an exercise in smoke and mirrors that’s got the nation coughing. If Mr Sibal wants to protect Sonia Gandhi from social media, he’s succeeded by redirecting everyone’s ire. Your free speech isn’t really under threat. No US firm, based in the nation where “freedom of speech” is defended to the hilt, would ever agree to screen content as Mr Sibal suggested.
Your ability to recognise actual news is what’s being challenged, to be able to discern what’s being said and why, and to challenge those in power about what they’re doing. Is anyone in parliament actually doing any work? In the quick-fire pace of social media, and of news this year, we will move on to something else tomorrow, again distracted from questions bigger than 140 characters.
After 11 months of relentless news this year, tweeting about censorship is light relief. But it’s a distraction from what else is going on – and Mr Sibal has achieved that voluntary censorship by the public very successfully.