Indian Government Criticized for Online Censorship

Demands for security are clashing with the need to maintain freedom of expression and open communication in India, where the government is being roundly criticized for online censorship in the wake of a major social disruption that was fueled, at least in part, by digital rumor-mongering.

As noted in a previous column, over the last month and a half, around 80 Muslims, many of them settlers from across the border in Bangladesh, have been killed by locals in the northeastern state of Assam. As a result, northeastern Indians living in other parts of India feared that they would be targeted for reprisals by Muslims angry over the mistreatment of their co-religionists in Assam. These fears triggered an exodus of people from the northeast back home, taxing the transportation system, disrupting business, and alarming Indian authorities.

In response the Indian government asked social media sites to remove objectionable content, and also asked wireless carriers to block bulk text messages and videos nationwide for 15 days. India subsequently blamed Web sites in Pakistan for stirring up the trouble, although Pakistan denied any responsibility. Since then, the government has asked Facebook and Twitter to block over 300 Web sites which it accused of posting doctored images and video intended to inflame communal tensions; the government also moved to block certain Twitter accounts, specific YouTube videos, and specific Facebook posts.

The government appears to be on pretty solid legal ground: last year Indian lawmakers passed a law giving the government the power to compel social media sites and other online platforms to remove offensive content. Nonetheless the blackout quickly came in for criticism from Indian pundits, who pointed out that in addition to limiting communication and the free exchange of information by blacking out official news Web sites, the ban was actually self-defeating, as it also included Web sites that were trying to debunk the inflammatory messages.

Most serious, some observers are warning that political parties will use these means to stifle legitimate criticism from political opponents, by taking advantage of the blurry definition of what constitutes “offensive” content intended to stir up communal tensions. For example, news reports critical of state governments’ handling of communal problems could be censored under the pretext that they are actually encouraging violence, simply by reporting on these issues or quoting controversial statements from politicians.

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