Social Media Sites Under Siege, India Blocks Access For “Inflammatory” Content
August 22, 2012

Social Media Sites Under Siege, India Blocks Access For “Inflammatory” Content

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Twitter and Facebook are among the social media websites that are being urged to remove content that is deemed “inflammatory” by the Indian government, in a move to quell fears of communal violence in India. An Indian federal minister said on Tuesday that social networks need to be more responsive and responsible, even if their headquarters are abroad.

The government said in a statement that it had already blocked access to 245 web pages that contained doctored videos and images. R Chandrashekhar, the state telecommunications secretary, said legal action could ensue if the social sites do not fully comply with the governments requests to take down the offending content.

Sachin Pilot, India´s minister of state for communications and IT, told IBNLive TV on Monday that social networks had not been very cooperative to block the offending content, and warned several sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube about Indian laws.

Both Facebook and YouTube have confirmed to the Indian government that the hate content spurred on their sites originated in Pakistan. However, they said they cannot take direct action against such sites, but will be able to directly work with the government because they have offices in India.

While Facebook and YouTube said they would work with the government, Twitter has not offered as much, mainly because it does not have a presence in India. The social microblogging site maintains, for their part, that the “objectionable content” is “poor” at best.

According to Chandrashekhar, if there is no positive response from Twitter, the government will do whatever is necessary in order to “address the problem.” India may even seek the aid of the US Homeland Security in order to force the sites to stop allowing hate content to continue to flourish across the social web, Chandrashekhar said.

It is likely that Twitter may not be able to adhere to any demands by India due to the huge number of tweets and retweets that crop up on the microblog. The only possible approach may be to filter and screen all content that is deemed objectionable. Such a move may be self-defeatist for any social media site, industry watchers have noted.

The crackdown will likely augment the debate on freedom of speech and censorship on the Internet. Media group Reporters Without Borders said in March that India was putting increased pressure on Internet providers to supply them with users´ personal data.

Google said that between July and December 2011 there was a 49 percent increase in India´s requests for content to be removed from its services, compared to the previous six-month period.

A senior official with the Ministry of Home Affairs said authorities have been trying to identify those responsible for posting hate content.

Thousands of students and workers from India´s northeast fled Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities last week fearing retaliation for violence against Muslims in the remote tea-growing state of Assam after threatening mobile text messages and website images showed panic. Clashes between indigenous people in Assam and Muslim settlers from neighboring Bangladesh have killed nearly 80 people and displaced some 300,000 since July.

Pavan Duggal, a cyber law expert, said that blocking web pages is like “putting a band-aid on a leaking roof. It's a strategy that is doomed to failure from the word go. There are so many indirect ways to access the Net."

India has not released details of blocked pages, but said in a statement, obtained by Reuters, that “international social networking sites” had indicated that much of the content had been uploaded from Pakistan, a long time foe of India, with which the country has fought three wars.

Google spokeswoman, Paroma Roy Chowdhury, said the company has accepted India´s request to remove some content and discussions are continuing on other requests. “We understand the gravity of the situation, strongly condemn acts of violence and continue to work closely with relevant authorities,” she said.

India's Information Technology Act requires that Internet service providers remove content considered objectionable within 36 hours of being notified.

Social networks drew criticism last December from Minister for Communications, Kapil Sibal, who said that some Internet companies allowed content that would fail to live up to the laws that they are enforcing in their own country by their own community standards. When asked by the ministry in some instances to remove certain offensive content, the Internet companies involved had declined, citing their community standards, Sibal said.

Two private court cases were filed last year in Delhi against Google, Facebook and other Internet companies for objectionable content on their websites. For the most part, these Internet companies continue to argue that they are not responsible for content on websites that are run by their parent companies abroad.

In the latest appeal by India, Facebook said on Wednesday it would remove content, block pages, and disable accounts of those users who upload content that incite violence or perpetuate hate speech.

“Facebook will remove content which breaches our terms as set out in our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Content or individuals can be removed from Facebook for a variety of reasons including issuing direct calls for violence or perpetuating hate speech,” a Facebook spokesperson told Press Trust of India (PTI).

“We have received requests from Indian authorities and agencies and are working through those requests and responding to the agencies. We encourage people to continue to use our tools to report content they are concerned about so that we can investigate and take action fast,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said a large number of Facebook employees are working around the clock in both India and the US to review, monitor and remove any offensive content, which the company states is part of its social responsibilities.