Delhi also warns Yahoo and Microsoft amid claims ruling party and Gandhi dynasty are simply trying to censor criticism
The Indian government has told social networking giants Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to remove material that might “offend Indian sensibilities”, unleashing a storm of criticism from internet users in the world’s largest democracy.
Kapil Sibal, the telecoms and information technology minister, on Tuesday confirmed he had met executives from the four companies to ask them to screen content, but no agreement had been reached.
Sibal said the Indian government “does not believe in interfering in the freedom of the press” but some of the images and statements on social media sites risked fanning tensions in India., which has a long history of communal violence. The minister cited one image of pigs running through the holy Muslim city of Mecca.
However the main focus of the government did not seem to be content liable to stir religious feelings.
A report in the New York Times on Monday said Sibal met executives from the four companies about six weeks ago and showed them a Facebook page with a modified image mocking Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party, and told them it was “unacceptable”. A modified image of the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was shown to reporters on Tuesday.
Little criticism of the Gandhi dynasty, which has provided three prime ministers and the current effective political leader of the country, is tolerated in India.
Last year, there were moves to block the publication of a Spanish author’s novel describing the life of Sonia Gandhi, who is the widow of assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and now the most powerful politician in the country.
“We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people. Our cultural ethos is very important to us,” Sibal said.
He added his ministry was working on guidelines for action against any companies that did not respond to the government’s requests, though he was unable to give details.
India’s largely unrestricted internet access is often contrasted with the tight controls in its regional rival China and the country’s bloggers reacted angrily. The hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal rapidly became one of the top Twitter trends in India.
Amit Agarwal, a well-known technology blogger, pointed out the practical difficulties of any screening.
“Does our Indian minister know that 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Or that 250m tweets are generated per day,” he wrote.
The chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, intervened in the debate via Twitter, which has not yet been criticised by the Indian government.
“I hate the idea of censorship but have seen for myself how dangerous inflammatory content on Facebook and Youtube can be,” he said, an apparent reference to the role the internet has played in recurring unrest in his state.
“We want the luxury of free speech but not the burden of responsibility for how we use that freedom. Something will have to give,” Abdullah, of the Congress party, said.
Indian authorities were put on the defensive earlier this year by an anti-corruption campaign that was in part organised on social networking sites. Sites such as Ipaidabribe.com have been at the forefront of recent activism against graft.
In a statement, Facebook said that “any content that violates [its] terms” would be removed and that the company would continue to engage with the Indian government on the issue.
India now has 100 million internet users, less than a tenth of the country’s population of 1.2 billion but the third highest total behind China and the US. Within three years that number will treble, according to some predictions.