U.S. Calls on India to Respect Internet Freedom
- A protest against censorship of the Web, in Mumbai,
The U.S. has urged India not to step on Internet freedoms as New Delhi seeks to clamp down on social media sites it blames for adding to communal tensions between Muslim and northeastern communities.
Indian officials say sites like Google and Facebook have been slow to remove content they claim has incited Muslim communities to carry out acts of violence, causing an exodus of northeasterners from a number of Indian cities.
Some Indian news reports even say India is planning to ask the U.S. for help in regulating such sites.
Victoria Nuland, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday the U.S. was not playing any role in India’s investigation on what sparked the exodus.
Ms. Nuland also stood up for freedom of expression, highlighting the gulf that divides India from the U.S. on the issue.
“We are always on the side of full freedom of the internet,” Ms. Nuland said. “We also always urge the government to maintain its own commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, rule of law.”
Different approaches over how to monitor the Internet have increasingly put India and the U.S. at odds in recent months.
India’s government says it supports Internet freedoms but will not allow people to use the medium to stoke communal sentiments.
The issue has come into focus this week amid violence between Muslim and northeastern communities in the state of Assam. The conflict over land has led to around 80 deaths and has caused reprisal attacks against northeasterners across India, causing many of them to flee.
- India has blocked around 250 websites, some of which it says carried fake images of violence by northeasterners against Muslims in Assam. It also has called on social networking sites to remove inflammatory content. Google and Facebook said Tuesday they are working on the requests.
The problem with this approach is that it’s often difficult to identify the source of objectionable material online.
India has been quick to point the finger – seemingly without much evidence – at people for inciting violence against northeasterners. First, the Home Ministryblamed Pakistan for hosting sites carrying the fake images. Officials later said they also suspected organizations in south India and Bangladesh.
A report in The Indian Express today says Indian authorities have arrested several people for sending SMS messages inciting violence against northeasterners. They include a 26-year-old cell phone repairman based in Bangalore.
Another issue is that it’s difficult to delineate what constitutes acceptable content. Clearly, people who use the Web to incite others to specific acts of violence should be stopped.
But India also has complained to social networking sites about more trivial matters, like cartoons that portray politicians in a joking manner. Some would argue curbing the Internet leads to a slippery slope where more and more content gets censored.
The latest battle is between the Prime Minister’s Office and Twitter. The PMO is angry over a number of Twitter accounts pretending to be Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Some of these sites were inciting communal tensions, including commenting on politicians’ castes and religions, said PMO spokesman Pankaj Pachauri.
The PMO has had the official @PMOIndia verified by Twitter, allowing users to tell which is the real account.
But that wasn’t enough. In June, the PMO wrote to Twitter asking the company to block the imposter sites. Mr. Pachauri said Twitter did not respond. Indian “cyber authorities” then unilaterally blocked six Twitter handles that were aping the Prime Minister, including using his photo, he added.
“We’re all for media freedom and encourage criticism by the media,” Mr. Pachauri says. “But when it comes to inciting trouble between communities then we have to take firm action.”