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Google and Facebook block content in India after court warns of crackdown

February 9, 2012

Google and Facebook have removed content from some Indian websites after a court warned that India would crack down "like China" if they did not take steps to protect religious sensibilities.

The two are among 21 companies ordered to develop a mechanism to block material considered religiously offensive after private petitioners took them to court over images deemed offensive to Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

Individuals have brought two cases against internet companies in India, fuelling fears about censorship in the world's largest democracy.

"[Our] review team has looked at the content and disabled this content from the local domains of [Google] search, YouTube and Blogger," said a Google spokeswoman, Paroma Roy Chowdhury.

At the heart of the dispute is a law India passed last year making companies responsible for user content posted on their websites, and giving them 36 hours to take down content if there is a complaint.

Last month, the companies said it was impossible for them to block content. Roy Chowdhury declined to comment on what had since been removed, and a Facebook representative said only that the company would release a statement later.

A New Delhi lower court hearing one of the cases, a civil suit brought by an Islamic scholar, told the companies on Monday to put in writing the steps they had taken to block offensive content, and submit reports within 15 days.

"Microsoft has filed an application for rejection of the suit on the grounds that it disclosed no cause of action against Microsoft," a spokesperson for the company said. "The matter is sub judice and no further comments can be given."

That suit was brought by a scholar, Mufti Aijaz Arshad Qasm, who runs a website called fatwaonline.org, which gives answers to moral questions.

Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft have appealed in the Delhi high court against a separate criminal case successfully brought by Vinay Rai, a journalist.

The high court has yet to rule on their appeal, but the sitting judge warned in January they were responsible for content on their websites and said he could, "like China", block sites if the company failed to put its house in order.

In the Rai case, the court ordered the companies to stand trial for offences relating to the distribution of obscene material to minors, after being shown images it said were offensive to the prophet Muhammad, Jesus and various Hindu gods and goddesses as well as several political leaders.

"If the companies have actually removed some content, they should put in place a mechanism to do it regularly, instead of waiting for a court case every time," Rai said.

Fewer than one in 10 of India's 1.2 billion population have access to the internet, but that still makes the country the third-biggest internet market after China and the US. The number of internet users in India is expected to almost triple to 300 million over the next three years.

Despite the new rules to block offensive content, India's internet access is still largely uncensored, in contrast to the tight controls in place in neighbouring China. But, like many other governments around the world, India has become increasingly nervous about the power of social media.

While civil rights groups have opposed the new laws, politicians say posting offensive images in a socially conservative country with a history of violence between religious groups presents a danger to the public.
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