India seeks web crackdown after failed talks with industry

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Indian authorities today declared an intent to force web companies to screen content for "offensive" and "blasphemous material". The move follows failed talks yesterday with Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft.

Kapil Sibal at the 2007 World Economic Forum.
Image: World Economic Forum.

Communications Minister Kapil Sibal says "My aim is that insulting material never gets uploaded", and that web firms "will have to give us the data, where these images are being uploaded and who is doing it." The government's planned new policy is in response to web-based firms informing him they could not prevent such material being uploaded. "They have given it to me in writing that they will not do anything until we get an order from the court," even though "At a meeting on 4 November, we showed them some of the photos and they too agreed that the photos were offensive," said Sibal. The disputed material was first discussed three months ago.

Sibal calls the situation "unacceptable" and disputes the firms' defence of being merely "platforms" for others to add material. He claims they showed their "intention was not to cooperate". Facebook promised ongoing dialogue in a statement and "[recognise] the government's interest in minimising the amount of abusive content". They also promised to "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."

Google say they remove material breaching their policies and to comply with local legislation. "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," the company added.

"We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us," Sibal said today. A response from web firms of "we throw up our hands, we can't do anything about this" would not be tolerated.

Although some reports suggest the spat has been triggered by critiques of powerful politician Sonia Gandhi, Sibal claims the firms have previously hesitated to respond to requests for details of "terrorists". All the material the government wishes to censor is "absolutely illegal, defamatory, pornographic or other similar kind of material" says Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Material in question includes cartoons of Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and material mocking religion including an image depicting pigs in Mecca.

The dispute is believed to stem from material against Sonia Gandhi, pictured here in 2007.
Image: Agência Brasil.

Indian computer security expert Vijay Mukhi rubbished the suggestions. "The idea of prescreening is impossible. How will they do it?... There is no technology currently that determines whether content is 'defamatory' or 'offensive'," he told Reuters. This sentiment was broadly echoed by large numbers on Twitter; the tag #IdiotKapilSibal was among the nation's Twitter users' most-used today. Twitter and Facebook were the organising points earlier this year for an anti-graft campaign that saw thousands protesting and new laws passed.

Internet companies insist too much material flows through the web to make such screening plausible. Sibal says the firms are applying US standards which do not take Indian needs into account.

Research in Motion last year resisted Indian security demands for access to encrypted BlackBerry communications. The government gave up that request but did manage to gain limited access to some BlackBerry communications. Skype and Google were told then that local servers would be mandatory, allowing the government to inspect emails.

About 100 million of India's 1.2 billion people are online. There are 28 million Indian Facebook profiles. Google says it has received 68 content removal requests from Indian officials this year, and there have also been concerns Google Earth could be used to plan militant attacks.

India's new moves follow criticism of the United Kingdom earlier this year. The UK proposed social media restrictions following riots while the Foreign Secretary simultaneously criticised other nations using social media controls to limit protest.


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