2011 rules, an update to India's Information
Technology Act (IT Act) of 2000 (amended in 2008), popularly known as the "intermediary
guidelines," instruct online "intermediaries" -- companies that provide
Internet access, host online content, websites, or search services -- to remove,
within 36 hours, any material deemed to be "grossly harmful, harassing,
blasphemous," "ethnically objectionable," or "disparaging" by any Internet user
who submits a formal objection letter to that intermediary. Under the
guidelines, any resident of India can compel Google, at the risk of criminal and/or
civil liability, to remove content from its site that the resident finds politically,
religiously, or otherwise "objectionable."
Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal -- the intermediary
guidelines' most important government evangelist, and the head of the agency responsible
for administering the guidelines -- even instructed
Internet companies to go one step further and start pre-screening content
for removal before it was flagged by concerned users. This requires companies like Facebook, in
effect, to determine what material might offend its users and thus violate
Indian law, and then remove it from the website. With over
100 million Internet users in India, no company could possibly monitor all
its content through human intervention alone; web companies would have to set
up filters and other mechanisms to take down potentially objectionable content more
or less automatically.
India's constitution, in large part crafted in response to
the modern country's harrowing history of religious and communal violence,
allows for "reasonable restrictions" on free speech. Indian officials
have at times banned certain books, movies, or other materials touching on such
sensitive subjects as religion and caste.
Left with little choice but to comply or risk legal action, Google,
Yahoo!, and other Internet companies acquiesced and began
pulling down webpages after receiving requests to do so. Yet many companies
refused to remove all the content requested, prompting Mufti Aijaz Arshad Qasm,
an Islamic scholar, and journalist Vinay Rai, respectively, to file civil and
criminal suits against 22 of the largest Internet companies operating in India.
The targets, including Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and Microsoft, were accused of
failing to remove material deemed to be offensive to the Prophet Mohammed,
Jesus, several Hindu gods and goddesses, and various political leaders.
The companies have had some success in the litigation:
Google India, Yahoo!, and Microsoft have all been
dropped from the civil case after the court heard preliminary arguments; the
Delhi High Court recently dismissed Microsoft from the criminal case. Otherwise, both cases are still ongoing.
India has taken its Internet regulation internationally, asking
the United States government to ensure that India-specific objectionable
content is removed from sites such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube, and suggesting
that these companies should be asked to relocate their servers to India in to
order better to regulate the content locally.