Proposal to block harsh online criticism of leaders sparks anger in India

Minister Kapil Sibal, right, has raised alarm bells in India over comments that social media providers should filter defamatory content.

Story highlights

  • India's top telecommunications official wants service providers to screen comments
  • Many Indians are outraged by the proposal, calling it censorship
  • An analyst says the government may have been spooked by social-media generated protests
  • The analyst calls the proposal "extremely worrying"
Indians expressed outrage Tuesday at a top telecommunication official's push to get social media sites to screen content considered defamatory to religious and political leaders.
Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal told reporters Tuesday that he is asking Facebook, Twitter and other online sites to regulate content before it is published.
Sibal insisted such regulation would not amount to censorship, but Indian bloggers and online users posted a different view.
#IdiotKapilSibal was trending on Twitter Tuesday. And blogger Shivam Vij urged Indians to use the hashtag and post it on their Facebook pages "because there may soon be a day when he may prevent you from doing so."
Sibal said he first approached providers including Facebook, Twitter and Google several weeks ago. The New York Times reported that Sibal showed the service providers a Facebook page that maligned Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and said it was "unacceptable."
But he said that in a meeting Monday, those companies informed him they could not do what he was asking.
"They pretty much said they cannot do anything," he said, adding that material that is incendiary or blasphemous has no place in India, where sensitivities differ from those in the West.
Sites like Facebook already have built-in mechanisms to flag and filter defined categories of objectionable content.
In a statement sent to CNN's sister network, CNN-IBN, Facebook said: "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."
Sibal's proposal is "extremely worrying," but the idea is not new one in India, said Nikhil Pahwa, editor of MediaNama, a firm that analyzes digital media.
Information technology rules issued earlier this year allow officials to demand the removal of objectionable content.
The difference with what Sibal is proposing now, Pahwa said, is that service providers would have to censor content before it is even published.
"Absolutely, it's censorship of free speech," Pahwa said. "The fear I have is that this is the beginning of something bigger."
There are no exact numbers, but it's estimated that as many as 100 million Indians are online. And that number is rapidly growing in a nation of 1.2 billion people.
Sites like Facebook and Twitter have gained popularity through their use on mobile phones.
Pahwa said he suspects the Indian government got spooked by the use of social media this year to galvanize popular uprisings in the Middle East, riots in the United Kingdom and the anti-corruption movement at home.
The Indian government, Pahwa said, is arming itself with the tools to stave off mass anti-government demonstrations.
Even more troubling is if the government tries to stifle political opposition by censoring online content, Pahwa said. Increasingly, Indian political groups are using the Internet to generate support.
"What I am worried about is the arbitrary decision taken to go down this path," he said. "What is the government trying to hide? Why this cloak-and-dagger approach?"
Meanwhile, Tuesday evening, Twitter was still buzzing in the world's largest democracy.
Wrote r2the: "Just ridiculous. What's next? They prevent thoughts from ever developing in our brains?"