India must have an open debate on internet curbs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 January, 2012, 12:00am


Most of the time, India behaves like a reasonably mature democracy. Sometimes, however, it behaves like a prickly, uptight juvenile. One such moment has been the recent court order issued to 21 websites, including Google and Facebook, to remove 'objectionable' online content.

Acting on the request of a journalist, the court's decision followed a government report saying offensive material could endanger social harmony.

Some of the companies took the case to the Delhi High Court, which began to hear their appeal this month. Parts of the hearing were slightly comical, with the lawyers representing Google and Facebook providing a sort of 'Internet for Dummies' guide to the judges. In response to the expectation that these websites can monitor every bit of content posted on them, decide what is objectionable or acceptable under Indian standards and then delete the former, the lawyer had to explain some rudimentary things.

For example, if the Indian government decided to block searches for a word like 'sex', it would also inadvertently affect access to government documents, voter lists and passport applications. I'm not sure how much the judges grasped but I hope the point got home that these websites are intermediaries. The responsibility for objectionable content lies with the person who posts it. Instead of focusing on hunting down that person, the authorities prefer to go after search engines and social media sites.

It is odd that no one, apart from the journalist and judges, has seen precisely what provoked the case. Apparently, even Google executives haven't seen the material at the heart of this case. All we know is that it was given to the court in a sealed envelope, presumably for fear that, if revealed, it would trigger riots.

The authorities rightly feel they have an obligation to keep the peace among its diverse faiths and communities by ensuring that inflammatory online content does not spark a social conflagration.

Critics of the government will say this is just an excuse for censorship but the reality is that, in these days of heightened awareness about one's identity, the smallest act by Hindus can be perceived as anti-Muslim by Muslims and vice versa.

So I understand the government's desire to formulate some sort of 'code' for the internet. The only problem is that it has gone about it in the clumsiest way possible - before it has even defined its objectives clearly. Only when this is done can a sensible debate be possible. Such a debate is overdue; despite the expansion of the internet in the country, a proper debate on the limits, if any, of freedom of expression on the internet has never taken place.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India