Protecting Sonia From India

The Indian public is under threat from satirical images of Sonia Gandhi? Really?


The Indian courts and government have launched a concerted assault on Internet freedoms recently.

In late December, two Delhi courts ordered Internet companies to remove “objectionable” content based on private complaints. Delhi Metropolitan Magistrate Sudesh Kumar directed 21 Internet companies, including Google, Yahoo and Facebook, to take down “anti-religious” and “anti social” content from their sites by Feb. 6, 2012. Acting on a complaint by a journalist, Vinay Rai, protesting objectionable photos and derogatory online articles on Prophet Mohammad, Jesus Christ and various Hindu Gods, Kumar ruled: “It appears from a bare perusal of the documents that prima facie the accused in connivance with each other and other unknown persons are selling, publicly exhibiting and have put into circulation obscene, lascivious content which also appears to the prurient interests and tends to deprave and corrupt the persons who are likely to read, see or hear the same.”

Separately, following a complaint by an Islamic scholar Mufti Aijaz Arshad Qasmi, Additional Civil Judge Mukesh Kumar directed several social networking sites, including Facebook, Google and YouTube, to delete objectionable religious content from their websites.

Significantly, both courts directed Internet carriers to censor the content pending actual determination of the merits of the cases.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has begun nudging Google, Facebook and other large Internet companies, to remove “offensive” and “insulting” content from their websites. IT and Communications Minister Kapil Sibal defended the thrust toward self-censorship, telling a press conference: “We are seeking their cooperation, and if somebody is not willing to cooperate on incendiary material, it is the duty of the government to think of steps that we need to take.” Gulshan Rai, director general of the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, India’s internet censor, went even further: “They remove links related to child pornography and pre-natal sex selection, don’t they? The real reason they are refusing to take such content off is because they generate hits and revenue.”

Indian government officials couch their censorship and self-censorship talk in lofty concerns over religious discord, hate speech and blasphemy. But Google’s latest Transparency Report, which details the number of government requests to delete content from its services and inquiries about its users, offers a revealing window to the government’s true intent. Of the 358 items the Indian government sought to have removed in the first half of 2011 from Google services, 255 (fully 70%), fell in the category of “government criticism,” the highest from any government in the world in the category. Just 39 items related to defamation, eight to hate speech and one to national security, the arguments most frequently advanced in defense of censorship.

Equally distressing are the number of demands from both the U.S. and Indian governments for information on users. Between January to June 2011, the U.S. sought information on 11,057 users and India 2,439 accounts from Google alone. Incredibly, the world’s two leading democracies topped the list of world governments prying into their citizen’s Internet use. Even more dishearteningly, Google complied with 93% of U.S. and 70% of India’s requests. And Google is our last line of defense.

We may as well pull up the stakes.

Indian media have reported that some of the offensive materials to draw the government’s ire include morphed cartoons depicting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi on Bollywood posters. The Indian public is under threat from satirical images of Sonia Gandhi? Really?

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