December 7, 2011 | By Maira Sutton

Indian Authorities Try (And Fail) to Make Tech Companies Block Politically Offensive Content

The Indian Telecommunications Minister met on Monday afternoon with top officials of Internet companies and social media sites, including the Indian units of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, to compel them to filter offensive content. The New York Times reported that Minister Kapil Sibal met with executives to discuss the possibility for their companies to create internal mechanisms that would prevent any comments the state deemed “disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory” towards political and religious figures.

The companies ultimately told Sibal that it would be impossible to put this in place, especially given the massive amount of data that they would have to oversee. In response to the companies’ position, Sibal declared that they would take policy measures to enact their strategy, though he wasn’t specific on what form this law would take. According to the New York Times, state officials there have already plans “to set up its own unit to monitor information posted on Web sites and social media sites.”

This was a follow-up to two previous meetings. In the first, six weeks ago, legal counsel from Facebook and top Internet service providers met with Sibal to address his concerns over a Facebook page that criticized Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party. Sibal made clear in a second meeting in November that he expected the companies to create human-based, not technological, mechanisms to prescreen and block all “objectionable” material. Despite these repeated meetings and the Minister’s wish to see companies create voluntary systems to block content, the companies remained insistent they do not want to be responsible for deciding what content is appropriate or not appropriate for the Internet.

It is unclear whether the state will cite existing laws in order to legitimize these plans for blocking content. In the past decade, the Indian Parliament adopted the Information Technology Act (ITA) and subsequent amendments, as well as other administrative regulations called the Information Technology Rules (ITR) in order to enact stiffer policies to uphold copyright law in India. It is possible that these laws are used to monitor and block content with little or no oversight.

The Center for Internet and Society (CIS) has monitored content removal requests from the Indian state, comparing the Indian Department of Information (DIT) reports with Google’s transparency reports. They found that there was a big difference in the treatment of blocking versus content removal, as well as the much larger number of content removal requests as compared to blocking.  This may indicate that while the ITA regulates blocking, it does not cover the forcible removal of content. CIS concludes from their analysis that “the DIT is not providing us all the relevant information on blocking, or is not following the law.”

While Indian authorities were not able to urge companies to create content blocking mechanisms, it is very possible that they may begin to legitimize their plans under the guise of copyright enforcement. It is currently unclear whether they have the legal mechanisms in place to legally censor content online in the name of political or religious defamation. As we have seen all over the world however, they may simply re-appropriate these existing laws in order to roll forward with their plans to censor Indian citizens at will.

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For ongoing Twitter updates on the story, follow the hashtag #KapilSibal


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