Uncle dictates, cyber boys dispose - Sibal to work on norms for social sites

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 7.12.11
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New Delhi, Dec. 6: Social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have refused to buckle under pressure from the Indian government to take down content that telecom minister Kapil Sibal and the babus on Raisina Hill find objectionable.

Sibal told reporters the government wanted the Big Boys of Cyberspace to remove “abusive” comments and images that could ignite a tinderbox of passions in the country but they had refused to do so in the interests of free speech and privacy.

Yesterday, Sibal had met executives from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo and asked them to filter out objectionable content before it was posted on the Net but no agreement was reached.

The Internet companies later said it wasn’t technically possible to “pre-screen” content before it was posted. They also argued that they had robust company policies governing objectionable content and did take down stuff that either incited violence or promoted nudity.

Sibal’s move, however, whipped up a storm of criticism with bloggers and tweeters slamming the minister for his alleged attempt to push for a form of online censorship. Some reminded him of the terrible consequences the Congress had to face because of the gag on free speech during the Emergency.

The government has been looking to crack down on offensive cyber blabber after it found derogatory comments posted on some websites against Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

“Even after three months, the companies have failed to come up with a solution. They threw up their hands and expressed their inability to do anything about it,” said Sibal, who has been interacting with these companies since September to find a way to stop the hurtful cussing on the Net.

India has 100 million Internet users, making it the third-largest user base after China and the US.

Facebook, which has more than 25 million users in India, said in a statement: “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.”

It insisted that it wanted the networking site to be a place where people could discuss things freely. “We will continue to engage with the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue,” Facebook said.

A spokesperson for Google said: “We follow the law when it comes to illegal content. And even where content is legal but breaks our own terms and conditions, we take that down once we’ve been notified about it.”

For Sibal, that clearly isn’t enough.

The telecom minister said the government would now work on detailed guidelines to monitor user content and prevent questionable material from being posted online. He did not set a timetable for framing the guidelines or say how he planned to force the websites to implement it.

Sibal said the government would seek details like the domain name, place and origin of content and the platforms used to upload the objectionable material before taking action against the guilty.

Last year, Indian security agencies had demanded access to communications sent through the highly secure BlackBerry devices of Canadian smartphone maker Research in Motion.

After dithering for a while, RIM eventually granted access to its consumer services but refused to permit monitoring of its enterprise email --– the feature that had made BlackBerry so popular in the first place.

The country’s Information Technology Rules 2011, notified in April, already stipulate that Internet sites and service providers must remove content that is considered objectionable, on the basis of a long list of criteria, within 36 hours of receiving intimation of it.

The list of objectionable content includes anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order.”

However, officials from the telecom department said the IT Act does not provide any specific instances of derogatory or defamatory content. The telecom ministry will now come up with a specific list of content and subjects that should be monitored.

Officials added that in the absence of a “specific list”, online companies have evaded requests to remove anti-Indian content.

“When content is legal but controversial, we don’t remove it because people’s differing views should be respected, so long as they are legal,” contended Google, which has 100 million users in India.

Internet companies tend to go by the law in the country they are registered in, which is usually the US. However, China has in the past blocked sites including Facebook that do not take into account its sensitivities.

The telecom department is also revising an earlier proposal that intended to put in place an advance screening system at the bandwidth landing stations to block individual websites and blogs perceived as objectionable or which posed threats to national security.

It is at the landing station that the Internet service provider connects land cables to submarine cables, through which firms such as Facebook provide their Indian users access to their websites.