Censorship in the world’s largest democracy

Online restrictions in India continue to tighten, with even Facebook and Google facing the prospect of being blocked.

Indian IT Industry Moves Into The Consumer Market
Many sites – including right-wing US blogs, alongside file-sharing sites – are blocked in India [Hashem Said/Al Jazeera]

San Francisco, California – In the world’s largest democracy, something is brewing that could have grave implications for freedom of expression. On January 12, in response to a private lawsuit, a Delhi High Court judge, Justice Suresh Kait, told lawyers for the Indian offices of Facebook and Google that, unless they develop the capability to regulate “offensive and objectionable” material on their sites, the Indian government would block their websites, “like China [does]”.

The complaint, filed by Vinay Rai, a magazine editor, was filed under laws banning the sale of obscene books and objects, as well as one pertaining to criminal conspiracy. It demands that the companies – as well as companies providing similar services, such as Yahoo – screen content before it appears on their sites. 

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Rai explained that the evidence he submitted to the court included content offensive to Hindus, Muslims and Christians. “My intention is to ensure that the sentiments of any religion or community are not hurt,” he told the Journal.

In October, well before Rai’s lawsuit emerged, India’s acting telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal, met with top executives of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo’s local offices to demand the same. 

Executives from the companies told the New York Times that the minister expects them to set up a “proactive pre-screening system” that would have human staffers seeking out objectionable content and deleting it before it appears. According to the same report, the companies called the demand “impossible”.

Are we entering an age
of cyber-censorship?

While the companies involved may refuse to pre-screen content, they already offer various channels for removing certain types of content. Users can report or “flag” content, which is then reviewed by staffers of the social networks. Furthermore, many companies remove certain content at the request of governments; according to Google’s transparency report, 358 requests for content removal were made by Indian government entities between January and June of 2011.

A history of censorship

Though nowhere near the levels of China’s Great Firewall, India is no stranger to online censorship. Try to access the sites of religious extremists or even certain right-wing US blogs and you’ll be greeted by a “server not found” page, obscuring the censorship. According to the OpenNet Initiative’s latest book, Access Contested [PDF], internet service providers (ISPs) in India block a number of websites, including some containing information on free expression and human rights.

While lacking transparency for the end-user, India’s censorship is not without legal basis. The Information Technology Act of 2000 criminalised the online publication of obscene information, while a 2008 amendment to the act, section 69A, gave the central government broad power to block public access to content deemed to be against the interest of India’s sovereignty and integrity.

In charge of implementing the censorship is the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, which receives complaints from police and government officials and issues blocking orders. Police commissioners can also order content that poses a “threat or nuisance” to society blocked under a separate code. The city of Mumbai created a special police team charged with identifying such information following the 2008 terrorist attacks.

In 2011, yet another regulation was added to the mix, requiring intermediaries (companies such as Google that host online content) to adopt terms of service that prohibit users from publishing or sharing a range of content, including that deemed to be obscene, infringing on copyright, “menacing”, “disparaging”, or threatening to national unity, integrity, or public order. The over-broad regulations were criticised by Indian NGOs and commentators – but nonetheless passed, going into effect in April, despite existing provisions protecting intermediaries from liability. 

Striking a balance

“Unlike books and paintings, online expression cannot easily be hidden from view.”

That all of these regulations were not enough for the Indian government is telling: The world’s largest democracy has long grappled with striking a balance between freedom of expression and maintaining order. From the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the 1980s to the lawsuits against artist MF Husain, India’s modern history of censorship serves as a precursor to the various restrictions placed on internet use.

But 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 the speech it finds distasteful; the offending content, even when blocked, remains accessible to savvy internet users through use of simple proxies. 

And if the government does succeed in blocking YouTube, Facebook and other social networks, it may have more to contend with than just speech. As researcher Ethan Zuckerman posits in his Cute Cat Theory of Internet Censorship, when the tools of our everyday lives become collateral damage in governmental efforts to block speech, citizens take notice. In Tunisia, where political speech had been censored for decades, citizens took to the streets when Facebook was blocked, prompting the government to free up the site after just a week. Turkey’s YouTube ban sparked awareness among a whole new generation of internet users.

So while many of India’s savvy internet users are already well aware of what their government is capable of in terms of censorship, a ban on social networks may be just what it takes to push others over the edge.

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.