Social networking sites have been instructed by a Delhi court to remove derogatory content for allegedly webcasting objectionable material. India's growing number of internet users fear this is tantamount to censorship.
India's articulate telecom minister Kapil Sibal is facing a deluge of protests in the online world after he threatened that the government would be forced to take remedial steps if social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google failed to screen offensive material from their sites.
Telecom minister Kapil Sibal has received criticism
"Down with censorship! Down with the arrogance of the Congress Party," "Democracy weeps! I honestly thought this was a joke," "India going the China way" – were some of the posts, tweets and Facebook status messages of the burgeoning number of internet users in the country.
But the online messages have only become bolder and shriller after a Delhi court last week ordered representatives of 21 social networking sites to remove obscene and derogatory content by February 2012.
"This is clearly a restraint on the freedom of expression. Are we becoming a police state? This order is a violation of the principles enshrined in the Constitution," exclaimed Ranjan Samanta of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties, a New Delhi based advocacy group.
Free speech under threat
Other advocates of free speech felt the court directive would only curtail debate in cyberspace.
"It's time for somebody to file a Public Interest Litigation arguing that there will be no censorship. Mr. Sibal may be an eminent lawyer but it's time for us to show him he's not as smart a politician as he thinks he is," argues Shivam Vij in the online portal, "Kafila."
Regulation of online content has been a hot topic for a while. In contrast to China, internet users in India enjoy largely unhindered access to the internet.
But in May this year, the Department of Information Technology brought in new rules placing the onus on social networking sites, such as Facebook, to "act within 36 hours" of receiving information about offensive content.
The real provocation for the government to crack the whip on social networking sites, say observers, was when Kapil Sibal recently called internet executives and showed them a Facebook page that depicted ruling Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi in poor light, maintaining it was a smear campaign.
"My aim is that insulting material never gets uploaded. We will not allow such insults to happen. We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people," he said at a press conference earlier this month.
Future of the Internet
The government's row with the social media industry has exposed tensions especially among the youth who are driving internet growth and form a bulk of India's 100 million users.
"In this digital age when everything is on the net, how can anyone think of placing restrictions? It is absurd," remarked Ajay Bery, a college student.
Someone posted nasty comments about Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi
Representatives of the giant internet firms have refused to comment on the court's observations, saying they would need time to study the order.
"We need to understand what the court means exactly by removing 'anti-social' content that may promote hatred or communal disharmony," said one executive on conditions of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak.
The future of internet growth in India, projected to have the third-largest online population in the world by 2013, could well hinge on this ongoing court battle. Larger questions of freedom of speech and expression will also be brought to the fore in this renewed debate that has broken out on "muzzling" the net.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Sarah Berning