India Asks Google, Facebook to Screen User Content

The Indian government has asked Internet companies and social media sites like Facebook to prescreen user content from I...

Anindito Mukherjee/European Pressphoto Agency
Kapil Sibal, Minister for Telecommunications and Human Resources Development, in a 2005 file photo.

NEW DELHI: The government on Tuesday appeared set to dictate a code of conduct for the social media networks and other websites despite an assurance from the likes of Facebook that they would remove content that violates their terms.

Indicating a hardening its stance, sources in the IT ministry insisted that the terms should be in line with Indian community standards so that they do not offend local sensitivities. While communications & IT minister Kapil Sibal reiterated that the government was against censorship, he said that the US laws and community standards could not be applied in India.

"We have to take care of the sensibilities of our peopleĀ¦ Cultural ethos is very important to us," Sibal told a hurriedly called press conference at his residence on Tuesday. With the legal process expected to take a while, the code of conduct may contain provisions that stipulate heavy penalty for websites that put out "offensive" material, sources added.

The minister, however, managed to stir foreign websites and social media sites such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to engage after he disclosed that the government was trying since September 5 to get these companies to formulate a strategy to check patently objectionable material that could trigger social/communal strife on their websites.

Sibal said that the companies had verbally agreed to some of the elements of a code discussed by the government but had now taken a position that they would only remove objectionable content if the court asked them to do so. The minister also said that on several occasions, these companies did not respond to proposals sent by the government.

Maintaining that the government does not want to interfere with press freedom, Sibal said if foreign social networking sites are not willing to cooperate with the government on stopping "incendiary" material, "then it is the duty of the government to think of steps that we need".

Although he refused to disclose elements of the proposed code of conduct, the alleged unwillingness of these websites to cooperate with the government in removing content has opened the doors for the government to step in to dictate what it can classify as "objectionable".

Reacting to the minister, Facebook said in a statement, "We want Facebook to be a place where people can discuss things freely, while respecting the rights and feelings of others, which is why we already have policies and on-site features in place that enable people to report abusive content. We will remove any content that violates our terms, which are designed to keep material that is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity off the service. We recognize the government's interest in minimizing the amount of abusive content that is available online and will continue to engage with the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue."

Microsoft and Yahoo refused to comment, but Google seemed to be holding firm on its decision to not follow Sibal's orders. A Google spokesman told TOI: "We work really hard to make sure that people have as much access to information as possible, while also following the law. This means that when content is illegal, we abide by local law and take it down. And even where content is legal, but violates our own terms and conditions, we take that down too, once we've been notified. But when content is legal and doesn't violate our policies, we won't remove it just because it's controversial, as we believe that people's differing views, so long as they're legal, should be respected and protected." Google also owns social networking site Orkut and video-sharing site YouTube.

Officials showed print-outs taken from various websites which were caricatures and sketches depicting Mecca, a Hindu goddess, PM Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Sibal said that following complaints received by him he had asked his staff to search the internet and download some material. On seeing the content that was "so offensive that it hurt the religious sentiments of large sections of the community", Sibal said he called for a meeting in early September.

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