India Puts Tight Leash on Internet Free Speech
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
An Internet cafe in New Delhi. New rules require Web sites and service
providers to remove some content that officials and even private
citizens find objectionable.
By VIKAS BAJAJ
Published: April 27, 2011
MUMBAI, India ˜ Free speech advocates and Internet users are
protesting new Indian regulations restricting Web content that, among
other things, can be considered „disparaging,‰ „harassing,‰
„blasphemous‰ or „hateful.‰
The new rules, quietly issued by the country‚s Department of
Information Technology earlier this month and only now attracting
attention, allow officials and private citizens to demand that
Internet sites and service providers remove content they consider
objectionable on the basis of a long list of criteria.
Critics of the new rules say the restrictions could severely curtail
debate and discussion on the Internet, whose use has been growing fast
The list of objectionable content is sweeping and includes anything
that „threatens the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty
of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order.‰
The rules highlight the ambivalence with which Indian officials have
long treated freedom of expression. The country‚s constitution allows
„reasonable restrictions‰ on free speech but lawmakers have
periodically stretched that definition to ban books, movies and other
material about sensitive subjects like sex, politics and religion.
An Indian state, for example, recently banned an American author‚s new
biography of the Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi that critics
have argued disparages Mr. Gandhi by talking about his relationship
with another man.
Although fewer than 10 percent of Indians have access to the Internet,
that number has been growing fast ˜ especially on mobile devices.
There are more than 700 million cellphone accounts in India.
The country has also established a thriving technology industry that
writes software and creates Web services primarily for Western
Even before the new rules ˜ known as the Information Technology
(Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011 ˜ India has periodically tried
to restrict speech on the Internet. In 2009, the government banned a
popular and graphic online comic strip, Savita Bhabhi, about a
housewife with an active sex life. Indian officials have also required
social networking sites like Orkut to take down posts deemed offensive
to ethnic and religious groups.
Using a freedom of information law, the Center for Internet and
Society, a Bangalore-based research and advocacy group, recently
obtained and published a list of 11 Web sites banned by the Department
of Information Technology. Other government agencies have probably
blocked more sites, the group said.
The new Internet rules go further than existing Indian laws and
restrictions, said Sunil Abraham, the executive director for the
Center for Internet and Society. The rules require Internet
„intermediaries‰ ˜ an all-encompassing group that includes sites like
YouTube and Facebook and companies that host Web sites or provide
Internet connections ˜ to respond to any demand to take down offensive
content within 36 hours. The rules do not provide a way for content
producers to defend their work or appeal a decision to take content
„These rules overly favor those who want to clamp down on freedom of
expression,‰ Mr. Abraham said. „Whenever there are limits of freedom
of expression, in order for those limits to be considered
constitutionally valid, those limits have to be clear and not be very
vague. Many of these rules that seek to place limits are very, very
An official for the People‚s Union for Civil Liberties, an advocacy
group based in New Delhi, said on Wednesday that it was considering a
legal challenge to the constitutionality of the new rules.
„What are we, Saudi Arabia?‰ said Pushkar Raj, the group‚s general
secretary. „We don‚t expect this from India. This is something very
An official at the Department of Information Technology, Gulshan Rai,
did not return calls and messages.
The rules are based on a 2008 information technology law that India‚s
Parliament passed shortly after a three-day siege on Mumbai by
Pakistan-based terrorists that killed more than 163 people. That law,
among other things, granted authorities more expansive powers to
monitor electronic communications for reasons of national security. It
also granted privacy protections to consumers.
While advocates for free speech and civil liberties have complained
that the 2008 law goes too far in violating the rights of Indians,
Internet firms have expressed support for it. The law removed
liability from Internet intermediaries as long as they were not active
participants in creating content that was later deemed to be
Subho Ray, the president of the Internet and Mobile Association of
India, which represents companies like Google and eBay, said the
liability waiver was a big improvement over a previous law that had
been used to hold intermediaries liable for hosting content created by
others. In 2004, for instance, the police arrested eBay‚s top India
executive because a user of the company‚s Indian auction site had
offered to sell a video clip of a teenage couple having sex.
„The new I.T. Act (2008) is, in fact, a large improvement on the old
one,‰ Mr. Ray said in an e-mail response to questions.
Mr. Ray said his association had not taken a stand on the new
regulations. An India-based spokeswoman for Google declined to comment
on the new rules, saying the company needed more time to respond.
Along with the new content regulations, the government also issued
rules governing data security, Internet cafes and the electronic
provision of government services.