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Wed 7 Dec 2011 04:44 PM

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Online uproar as India seeks social media screening

India asks Facebook, Twitter to screen content, spurring claims of censorship

Online uproar as India seeks social media screening
India has asked social media firms such as Twitter to screen the content they show

India has urged social network companies including Facebook,
Twitter and Google to remove offensive material, unleashing a storm of
criticism from internet users complaining of censorship in the world's largest
democracy.

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, he said.

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.

Socially conservative India already censors some films and
books considered obscene or likely to stoke religious conflict.

The country of 1.2 billion people created new rules earlier
this year obliging Internet companies to remove a range of objectionable
content when requested to do so, a move criticized at the time by rights groups
and social media companies.

It was not clear if Sibal was proposing stiffer regulation,
but Law Minister Salman Khurshid later said his colleague was calling for
dialogue about offensive content, not censorship.

A New York Times report Monday that said Sibal called
executives about six weeks ago and showed them a Facebook page that maligned
ruling Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi and told them it was
"unacceptable."

The government is very sensitive to criticism of Gandhi,
whose family has dominated Indian politics since before independence from the
British and has lost two prominent figures to assassination.

Officials are often keen to be seen as protectors of the
family. Last year there were moves to block the English translation of a
Spanish novel about Sonia Gandhi's life.

"We have to take care of the sensibilities of our
people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very
important to us," Sibal said Tuesday, after showing reporters some images
he said were taken from the Internet and would likely offend religious
communities.

Sibal said his ministry was working on guidelines for action
against companies which did not respond to the government's requests, but did
not specify what action could be taken.

"We'll certainly evolve guidelines to ensure that such
blasphemous material is not part of content on any platform."

Despite the rules in place, India's Internet access is
largely unrestricted, in contrast to tight controls in fellow Asian economic
powerhouse China. But in line with many other governments around the world,
India has become increasingly edgy about the power of social media.

India's bloggers and Twitter users scorned the minister's
proposals, saying a prefiltering system would limit free expression and was
impossible to implement. The phrase #IdiotKapilSibal was one of India's most
tweeted Tuesday.

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"The idea of prescreening is impossible. How will they
do it?...There is no technology currently that determines whether content is
'defamatory' or 'offensive'," India-based cyber security expert Vijay
Mukhi told Reuters.

The New York Times report, which Sibal did not confirm or
deny, was the focus of much of the online anger directed at the minister
Tuesday.

"I love Sonia Gandhi. She is awesome. She is God. And
never wrong about anything, ever." (This msg is approved by Kapil Sibal's
cyber cell)," posted twitter user Sorabh Pant.

Indian authorities were taken aback in the summer by an
anti-corruption campaign that multiplied on Facebook and Twitter, drawing tens
of thousands of people to street protests and forcing the government to agree
to new anti-graft laws.

Last year, as part of a broader electronic security
crackdown, Indian security agencies demanded access to communications sent
through highly secure BlackBerry devices of Canadian smartphone maker Research
In Motion.

RIM gave India access to its consumer services, including
its Messenger services, but said it could not allow monitoring of its
enterprise email.

Facebook said in a statement it recognized the government's
wish to minimize the amount of offensive content on the web. The
California-based company said it removes content that violates company rules on
nudity and inciting violence and hatred.

Internet search giant Google, which owns social networking
site Orkut and video-sharing site YouTube, also said it already removes content
when it is illegal or against its own policy.

"But when content is legal and doesn't violate our
policies, we won't remove it just because it's controversial, as we believe
that people's differing views, so long as they're legal, should be respected
and protected," the company said in a statement.

Yahoo India declined to comment, as did Microsoft's Indian
public relations agency.

India now has 100 million Internet users, less than a tenth
of the country's population of 1.2 billion. It is the third-largest user base
behind China and the United States. It is seen swelling to 300 million users in
the next three years.

During last year's clampdown, officials also said Google and
Skype would be sent notices to set up local servers to allow full monitoring of
email and messenger communications.

Britain also faced criticism last month for considering
curbs on social media after recent riots even as Foreign Secretary William
Hague castigated countries that block the Internet to stifle protests.

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