India's Internet Freedom Nightmare
Image Credit: Oxfam International (flickr)

India's Internet Freedom Nightmare


Coming on the heels of a series of legal and political confrontations with the world’s largest and most prominent Internet companies, the Indian government has once again become embroiled in a struggle with Facebook, Twitter, and Google over what it deems to be “objectionable” online content.

Before, when the government and the powerful Internet companies faced-off last spring, there were only important matters of Internet privacy and speech, as well as government power, at issue. This time, however, it is not only freedom of expression that is at stake, but lives as well.

On Tuesday, Indian officials pressed the companies to remove certain “inflammatory” material, which the government contends contributed to the recent nationwide panic resulting in tens of thousands of people fleeing from some of India’s largest cities. The government has already successfully blocked or taken down at least 300 webpages hosted by the online service providers, and is threatening to take further legal action against the social media companies if they fail to comply with additional take-down requests.

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The trouble began when threatening messages containing images of mutilated bodies began appearing on Indian cell phones, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. The graphic images and accompanying text and emails – which Indian Home Secretary R.K. Singh has argued originated in Pakistan – warned that Indian Muslims were planning to attack non-Muslims from India’s northeast region.  These attacks, it was said, were intended as retaliation for Muslim deaths that occurred as part of an ongoing dispute between Bengali Muslims and indigenous Bodo tribespeople in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. The Assam violence, which is rooted in a decades-long dispute over land, ethnicity, jobs, and political power, has claimed over 70 lives and caused over 300,000 people to flee their homes since July.

The text and social media messages set off widespread panic among northeasterners working and studying in cities across south India, who feared they would be targeted for revenge attacks. Consequently tens of thousands of northeasterners hurriedly boarded buses and trains heading back home to escape what they believed to be an imminent massacre of non-Muslims.

The panic has now largely subsided, following a number of arrests and the deployment of additional security forces to Assam and the affected southern cities.

But the government is still showing concern, and has decided to hold the social media companies that hosted the threatening messages partly accountable.  On August 19th, India’s Secretary for Telecommunications, R. Chandrashekhar, even hinted that Facebook and Twitter could face legal action for their unwillingness or inability to take down online material, or to trace the violent messages’ origins, as quickly as the government had demanded. Twitter, it was suggested, might even be shut down in India entirely.

This latest government effort to control content offered by social media has already rekindled India’s increasingly heated Internet censorship debate, a debate that took on new momentum in April 2011, when the government introduced a new set of controversial telecommunications rules that set strict limits on “offensive” content, such as provocative religious or political cartoons and statements.

Over the last week, Internet freedom advocates have viewed the government’s demands in response to the Assam violence with some skepticism, worrying that government is simply using the crisis as a pretext to implement the controversial policies. The New York Times reported that Indian civil society groups were already suggesting that the government demand that all Internet “intermediaries” – the companies that provide Internet access, host online content, websites, or search services – disable all content that was “inflammatory, hateful and inciting violence,” was unreasonable, even in light of the current crisis.

The United States, which in the last few years has found itself seriously at odds with India over Internet regulatory issues, was likewise quick to condemn (albeit subtly) the Indian government’s actions in response to the panic. “As the Indian government seeks to preserve security, we are urging them also to take into account the importance of freedom of expression in the online world,” Victoria Nuland, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, stated on Thursday.

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