Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., fighting a lawsuit in India against content deemed offensive by the government, asked a court to quash the case that underscores a clash over free speech in the world’s biggest democracy.
The two companies argued in the Delhi High Court yesterday that it’s impossible to pre-screen and monitor all blogs and social-networking sites, said Sidharth Luthra, an advocate representing Facebook. The court is hearing a challenge filed by the companies after a lower court last week ordered top executives to be present at a trial on March 13.
India is stepping up scrutiny of Internet postings and mobile communications, even as it held at least six meetings with companies in 2011 to weed out provocative comments and help prevent discord between religious groups. The Hindu-majority South Asian country is home to more than 138 million Muslims, comprising about 13 percent of the world’s most-populous country after China.
“The case is probably the first chapter in a long-running battle between service providers and the government,” said Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court lawyer who specializes in Internet law. “We are likely to see more prosecutions and challenges until the law is clearly settled.”
Vinay Rai, who edits an Urdu-language newspaper, asked the lower court to prosecute 21 companies, saying some material on their websites has the potential to incite religious conflict. The Delhi High Court will next hear the challenge on Jan. 19.
India’s Information Technology Act of 2008 gives Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal the authority to order portals to block sites and requires companies to designate a point of contact for receiving those government requests.
Sibal told reporters on Dec. 6, waving examples of content that he said was unacceptable, that the government will come up with stricter rules. He denied any intention to censor free speech.
A sectarian divide has fueled decades of violent riots in Asia’s third-largest economy. Muslims in India are the largest religious minority that also includes Christians and Buddhists among others. The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks left 166 people dead, while bombs ripped India’s financial center and capital New Delhi in 2011.
Points of View
On Dec. 7, Google, the owner of the world’s most popular search engine, said it will “continue to remove” content in India that is illegal or breaks the company’s terms of service. Services such as YouTube and the social-networking site Google+ “help users to express themselves and share different points of view,” it said in a statement. A day later, the Mountain View, California-based company said it received a tax demand from Indian authorities.
Google India filed a petition before the court and can’t comment further, spokeswoman Paroma Chowdhury said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. Kumiko Hidaka, a spokeswoman for Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, didn’t respond to an e-mail.
Google India isn’t responsible for offensive items posted by third parties, said Neeraj Kishan Kaul, a lawyer for Google in court yesterday.
Disputes between the government and websites flared in April when the department of information technology changed rules that allowed government officials and citizens to demand that sites remove offensive content. Failure to comply with the orders within 36 hours can result in fines and imprisonment for as long as seven years.
In the preliminary hearing last week the lower court warned that India may follow China’s example of blocking websites if they fail to comply with the government’s requests, according to comments published in the Indian Express.
The lawsuit illustrates the challenges facing websites as they seek to expand in India where the number of Internet users is expected to triple to 237 million by 2015, Boston Consulting Group estimates.
India had about 89 million people using the Web at the end of last year, compared with more than 450 million in China, the world’s largest Internet market, according to the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva.
Facebook’s number of active accounts in India jumped 33 percent to 41.4 million in the last six months, according to socialbakers.com, which tracks user data. That’s the third-highest in the world behind 157 million in the U.S. and 41.8 million in Indonesia.
The company opened an office in the southern city of Hyderabad last year.
Facebook is blocked in China, which also bans pornography, gambling and content critical of the ruling Communist Party.
South Korea is also stepping up scrutiny of online media. The Korea Communications Standards Commission set up a team to monitor and censor social-networking sites, mobile applications and online ads, according to a Dec. 1 statement from the regulator.