China Power

India Treads China Censor Path

Talk of India censoring “objectionable” social media content has inevitably drawn comparisons with China.

The world’s largest democracy prides itself on being the “free” rising Asian giant. But is India taking a leaf out of its neighbor’s censorship playbook?

China’s so-called Great Firewall has been well-covered (and criticized) by Western media. And as concern of a repeat of the Arab Spring uprisings has grown, so has the determination of Chinese officials to crack down on “toxic” rumors.

“No governments have ever succeeded in banning rumors.  But that hasn’t stopped many from trying,” leading China analyst Minxin Pei noted in September. “The latest to do so is Beijing. Irked by what it deems as malicious rumors spread through the Internet, and microblogs in particular, the Chinese government has recently announced a crackdown on the so-called ‘toxic’ Internet rumors.”

Part of this crackdown, revealed last month, was an announcement that media outlets must not report on stories that appear in social media until they’ve been “verified.” On the surface, such a rule might of course sound reasonable. But critics expressed concern over how the government would apply the new rule against the backdrop of a growing number of dissidents being detained.

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“These restrictions are more evidence that the Party feels they have lost or are losing control of the propaganda environment, and are starting to panic about it,” said Kelley Currie, a China specialist with Washington-based Project 2049. “They have good reason to be, with Weibo and the proliferation of smart phones proving to be a powerful combination that allows people to instantly share video of and commentary on everything from an ‘urban management’ thug beating up a street vendor to exposes of restaurants using ‘gutter oil.’”

India, which has traditionally prided itself on having a robust and extremely vocal media, would have been assumed by many to be immune to such temptations. Yet there has been a national uproar over plans by India to screen social media.

As Reuters reports, India has urged social network companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove “offensive material.”

“Telecoms and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal met executives from Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft Monday to ask them to screen content, but no agreement with the companies was reached,” Reuters reported.

“Sibal denied he was promoting censorship, but said some of the images and statements on social media risked fanning tensions in India, which has a long history of deadly religious violence. He said the firms had rebuffed earlier calls to take action.”

The move follows rules passed earlier this year that oblige Internet companies to remove “objectionable” content when asked to do so.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that before the news conference announcing the plans, Sibal showed examples of “objectionable” content to some journalists, “who described it as  pornography combined with images of  Mecca and Hindu gods. Mr. Sibal also said there were images of Congress party personnel that were ‘ex facie objectionable.’”

Such a hands-on government approach has inevitably led to comparisons with China’s efforts to stifle political debate.

“The timing of this move has also raised some eyebrows as it comes just before Anna Hazare prepares to launch another round of protest on the Lokpal Bill,” noted Sumit Pande, writing for IBN. “In their earlier campaigns, Team Anna has made extensive use of these sites to mobilize support.”

Some Indian policymakers may have watched China’s extraordinary economic rise in recent years with a little envy. But the social clampdown is presumably not what most Indians were hoping for as they seek to emulate some of the success of their massive neighbor.