The Internet censorship scene in India has been heating up for quite some time now. Late 2011, the Indian government and Telecom frontman Mr. Kapil Sibal asked Internet companies to pre screen objectionable content, which can be a blog post, a photo, a video or a tweet. Google, Facebook, YouTube and 19 other social networking sites were precisely told to remove inflammatory material before February 6th 2012.
Pre screening user generated content is easier said than done. Everyone knows the size and volume of social users in India and removing all the user generated content is nearly impossible because of two reasons:
1. It is literally impossible to monitor each and every user on a social networking site. Anything that is posted online has to be viewed through human eyes, cross checked and then passed through the safe filter. How many eyeballs will faint reading 250 million tweets, that are posted every single day?
2. If we assume that the proposed system is successful in pre-screening content, how do you stop people from creating fake profiles and bulk post all the objectionable stuff in random order?
This idea is nothing but madness.Technically speaking, not at all feasible or achievable.
According to Google’s 2011 transparency report, Indian Government officials and cyber experts have made 68 requests to remove objectionable or obscene content. Metropolitan cities like Mumbai, have dedicated special cyber units who constantly monitor social networking sites e.g Facebook, Orkut and they will go all guns blazing, if they find someone crossing the line.
[January 13th]: Objectionable Content Can’t Be Filtered – Google, Facebook.
On January 13th 2012, both Google and Facebook appealed to Delhi High court arguing that it is impossible to pre-screen content posted by thousands of internet users. Instead, the users should be held responsible, not the social site or the search engine.
“The search engine only takes you to a website. What happens after that is beyond a search engine’s control,” Neeraj Kishan Kaul, a lawyer for Google India, told a packed High Court hearing on Monday. “If you use blocks, which is very easy for people to say, you will inadvertently block other things as well. For example: the word ‘sex’. Even a government document like a voter ID list or a passport has the word ‘sex’,” he added.
Likewise, it is not possible on the part of a social network to take down users who have aggressive thoughts or hatred towards political leaders, religions or a celebrity. A user who is innocent today may have some reactions tomorrow, where from you start drawing the line?
“The issue relates to a constitutional issue of freedom of speech and expression, suppressing it was not possible as the right to freedom of speech in democratic India separates us from a totalitarian regime like China,” advocate N K Kaul, appearing for Google India, told Justice Suresh Kait. For example, if you block the word “Virgin”, how will people find information about “Virgin Airlines”? Times of India has the detailed conversation here.
[February 7th]: Objectionable Content Has Been Removed – Google.
Google India has now admitted that the company has removed or filtered controversial content that were flagged to be offensive towards religious and political leaders. Which websites or pages were removed? Google hasn’t revealed any names but the company is now adhering to the laws of the land and the legal requisitions of the government. Please note that the objectionable content has been removed only from Google’s localized India domain, the same content is accessible to users of a different country.
Just one week ago Google forced a new web address for all blogger blogs in India, shifting from a .com TLD to a more localized .in address. This is definitely in conjunction with selective censorship, as the search giant can control (and remove) objectionable content for Indian users only, while they will continue to be available in other countries.
Amongst other companies, the Delhi high court has issued directions to Facebook and Yahoo to take down offensive content at their earliest. Facebook India came up with a compliance report on Monday arguing that the complaints raised are not specific in nature. Facebook told the court that it does not control or operate the servers that host the website available at www.facebook.com , which are located in the US, according to a report from Indian Express. The operating party is Facebook India Online Services Pvt Ltd and not Facebook Inc.
On the other hand, Yahoo and Microsoft filed applications for deletion of their names from the civil complaint stating that there was no allegation against them for webcasting any objectionable content. “The Defendant no.5 (Yahoo) is primarily a content portal offering e-mail and messenger communication services but not offering features generally associated with social networking websites. So to that extent the website of Defendant no.5 cannot be regarded as a social networking website” – this is Yahoo India’s official remark, after they appealed deletion from the list of alleged parties.
All the alleged websites have to produce official statements and explanations within 15 days counting from today.
Country wide protests and reactions from online junta/media sources are already pouring in. Pre screening user generated content will eventually lead to the death of free speech, and lets not forget that India is the World’s largest democracy. [Image credit]