Bad news arrived recently from India, in what some see as a new threat to the world’s largest democracy.
Google admitted to blocking content deemed offensive to Indian politics and religion at the behest of an Indian tribunal. Muslim religious leader Mufti Aijaz Arshad Qasmi declared 22 websites bellicose and promoted legal action against the sites and their hosting companies. Google responded to the tribunal’s complaints by removing or blocking the webpages in India.
The removal of Web content in India is now possible due to a new law enacted last year making companies legally responsible for content published on their websites. If a complaint is made about a specific webpage and a tribunal petitions to block the content, the company listed in the complaint is given a mere 36 hours to remove the content before criminal charges are brought. Among the 22 companies sued by Qasmi, Google succumbed to court orders most frequently, while Facebook, Yahoo and others fought back. In some cases companies employed counter strategies in order to defend themselves by pleading their non-involvement to the “offensive” content. Facebook pointed out that their content is user supplied and that they have no direct connection to videos and images posted on their social networking platform. Yahoo, whose next court hearing is scheduled for March 1st, has also pushed the “third party” defense, claiming that their role is only in selling email and chat services to users. Meanwhile Google India spokesman Gaurav Bhaskar has pointed out that Google has continued to follow its normal policy with local courts and legal cases.
But observers are beginning to notice how quickly Web pages were preemptively censored by Google in order to avoid legal proceedings, and many doubt whether India’s democracy is still healthy with recent anti-corruption protests seeming to confirm this notion. In the meantime, Qasmi’s website – infamously named fatwaonline.in – has been anonymously hacked, with the culprits displaying a warning on the website’s homepage reading, “Probably best not to piss the social networking sites off.”
The Google Transparency statistics reveal that Indian authorities demanded the omission of content 68 times from January to June 2011. Most of the content was removed due to “defamation” and “government criticism” of political figures. But India is no isolated case and similar types of censorship have occurred in powerful democracies around the world. Blockage requests have occurred in Germany (125), the United States (92), the United Kingdom (65), Italy (36), and Switzerland (fewer than 10).