x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

India's plan for web censorship met with criticism

India's communications minister said that the government will take action to screen offensive material after Web giants such as Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook failed to heed his calls to do so on their own.

Internet users have questioned the viability of the proposed new regulations.
Internet users have questioned the viability of the proposed new regulations.

NEW DELHI // India's communications minister said yesterday that the government would take action to screen offensive material from the internet after Web giants such as Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook failed to heed his calls to do so on their own.

"They will have to give us the data, where these images are being uploaded and who is doing it," Kapil Sibal told reporters in remarks that were criticised by internet users and media freedom advocates and underscored the clash between India's robust cyber culture and domestic political and religious sensibilities.

"It is very clear that there is a plan that will evolve into a set of guidelines against blasphemy on any platform," said Nikhil Pahwa, editor of medianama.com, a website that analyses digital media.

"What is also problematic is that what is going to be censored has not been properly defined. These are serious issues of censorship and an invasion of privacy."

Mr Sibal first publicly voiced his complaint three months ago about some of the material transmitted across the internet, noting what he called "unacceptable" images involving religious and political figures and nudity. He said yesterday that representatives of internet companies had failed in subsequent meetings with government officials to propose methods to control what was posted online, forcing the government's hand.

While saying that the government did not want to interfere with freedom of the press, Mr Sibal said that "guidelines and mechanisms" would be put in place to stop "insulting material" from appearing online and internet companies would be required to provide information indicating where and who is uploading the offending material.

Mr Pahwa said the minister's proposal to use government employees to monitor the internet was particularly troublesome - and costly.

"The government needs a reality check. Who are they to take this decision?" he asked.

Underlying the government's move to control digital transmissions and monitor messaging between mobile devices is the role played by social media websites in the Arab Spring and the protests in Iran in 2008, Mr Pahwa believes.

"They are now looking to store information, looking to identify every individual and looking to put laws in place to do so," he said.

In a nation as diverse as India, consensus on what constitutes "offensive" images and speech meriting censorship will be difficult to reach.

"My friends and I joke online all the time with each other. We call each other by bad words ... Is that offensive? I don't think so," said Micky Sharma, a 17-year-old pupil in New Delhi, who insisted that the government would not be able to pass the internet laws. "This is India. The government cannot monitor my content. We are a democracy. If they do that, then how are we any different from China?"

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae