x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Internet giants Google and Facebook in Indian court battle

Web companies face criminal penalties for not removing ‘offensive’ material.

NEW DELHI // On one side are internet giants such as Google and Facebook. On the other are two men who find some of those websites' content offensive.

At stake when a landmark court case resumes today is a complicated Indian dilemma: how can an increasingly sophisticated country continue to grow and attract foreign investment while accommodating age-old religious and political practices and beliefs?

Today's hearing is the latest in a lawsuit by an Islamic scholar and a journalist who seek to hold companies including Yahoo!, Microsoft and subsidiaries of Google, such as the social networking site Orkut, criminally responsible for failing to censor online content.

The companies also face possible criminal penalties after a judge, Suresh Kait, ruled in December that they had potentially violated regulations put in place by India last year requiring the filtering of obscene, defamatory or objectionable content.

The judge said the companies that operate websites must remove such material, or the court could order that the web pages be blocked.

"Like China, we will block all such websites," Justice Kait said on Thursday. He asked the sites' lawyers to develop ways to remove "offensive and objectionable" material.

Representatives of Facebook India and Google India appeared in the Delhi High Court on Thursday to ask for the ruling to be reversed. The hearing was adjourned until today.

The Indian government said last week that there was sufficient evidence to sanction the prosecution of the companies hosting such content, which it said could provoke ethnic, religious and cultural tension in India.

One of the two petitioners against the networking companies is an Islamic scholar and teacher in Delhi.

Mufti Aijaz Arshad Qasmi, 28, and his friend, Vinay Rai, a Delhi-based journalist, petitioned the criminal court on December 20.

On December 23, the Delhi High Court issued summonses to 21 social networking websites for "criminal conspiracy, sale of obscene books and sale of obscene objects to young persons".

"It is a matter of national integrity. I did it on moral grounds," said Mr Qasmi.

In the past few weeks Mr Qasmi has gone back to monitor content he deems offensive. He said none of what he saw earlier has been removed although some companies say they have monitoring systems in place,.

"I still found many, many objectionable cartoons, films and pictures through Google," said Mr Qasmi. "They need a better screening system."

Mr Qasmi runs a website called fatwaonline.org. He said his website was hacked last week after the petition became public. All content was deleted and the hackers left behind a message saying it was best not to irritate social networking sites.

Mr Qasmi said he would try to restore the lost content, which includes archived issues of an Urdu magazine, and fatwa categories.

"I want them to know that I am not for blocking websites," he said.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae


Follow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Surya Bhattacharya on @SuryatapaB