Hours after NBC aired an episode of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Indian television channel Zee Cafe cut a joke featuring the Golden Temple from local reruns.
The gag poking fun at presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wealth drew complaints from India’s diplomats and sparked a lawsuit by U.S. Sikhs, for whom the gold-clad temple is their holiest site. Indians curious to hear the joke turned to Google Inc.’s YouTube.com, which still carries clips of the 8-second skit.
While Zee is among 24 broadcasters, including Rupert Murdoch’s Star India Pvt that voluntarily remove content they think may offend India’s religious and social mores, global Internet companies are refusing to follow suit. The stand has put Google, Facebook Inc. and others at odds with the government and earned a High Court warning that they risk being banned from the world’s biggest democracy in much the same way they’re shut out of China.
“The TV channels here are going the extra mile to ensure that government regulation is kept at bay,” said Sevanti Ninan, whose media-watchdog blog, thehoot.org, is funded by groups including the Ford Foundation and United Nations. “It enables them to say that the government has no reason to regulate.”
Internet companies say they will only remove material that is illegal, violates their global policies or as directed by a court. Mountain View, California-based Google said yesterday that it has removed content deemed objectionable from its Indian domains after an order from a New Delhi district judge in a civil suit.
Google said requests from authorities to cut politically sensitive postings have increased. In the first half of 2011, 255 of the 358 items that officials asked Google to remove related to social media or YouTube postings critical of the government, up from 11 in the previous six months, according to the company’s annual transparency report. Google complied a little more than half the time.
Google denied a request from one law-enforcement agency to cut 236 postings critical of a politician, saying that the material didn’t violate local laws.
Internet companies argue that they cannot monitor the billions of postings on the Web and that their services promote the free speech enshrined in India’s constitution.
“Access to information is the foundation of a free and prosperous society,” Google said in a statement yesterday. “Where content is illegal or breaks our terms of service we will continue to remove it.”
The government said it’s only pushing Internet companies to police their sites and cut items that may offend religious groups or incite political violence.
Six rounds of talks that began in September between the government and companies including Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and Twitter Inc. failed to reach an agreement.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Kapil Sibal waved copies of what he described as offensive material hosted by portals at a Dec. 6 press conference. Some were lewd depictions of leaders including Sonia Gandhi, who heads the ruling Congress party and whose husband and mother-in-law were both assassinated. Another depicted pigs running through Mecca, a holy site for Muslims.
The government cleared the way for a privately brought criminal prosecution of Google, Facebook and 19 other Internet companies over the content, according to a Times of India report of a lower-court hearing. An appeal to have the case quashed will continue Feb 14. High Court Justice Suresh Kait told the companies during an initial hearing that they faced a ban if they failed to come up with a system to police content the government finds objectionable.
China bars Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, and blocks Google searches on sensitive subjects or key words.
The companies’ country heads have been summoned to appear at a March 13 hearing of the lower court. Google India declined to comment on that case because it is before a court, spokeswoman Paroma Chowdhury said in an e-mailed statement. Kumiko Hidaka, a spokeswoman for Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, didn’t respond to e-mails and a phone message seeking comment.
India’s laws allow any individual to file so-called public interest litigation on behalf of all citizens, and judges have a track record of backing them against multinational corporations. Under a 2008 law, the government can demand that Internet sites remove content deemed objectionable within 36 hours of an official request. Failure to comply can result in fines and imprisonment for as long as seven years.
“While the court cases are ostensibly about technology and complying with directives from a specific ministry, the larger issue that’s being argued is about freedom of speech,” said Pawan Duggal, a New Delhi lawyer who specializes in information technology cases.
Last month, “Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie pulled out of the Jaipur Literature Festival on concern that local authorities weren’t able to guarantee security if he spoke.
Rushdie’s 1988 novel led to death threats from Muslims who accused him of blasphemy. Google sponsored three talks at Jaipur that focused on dissent, and one on the Arab Spring.
“The core theme of this festival is freedom of expression, which is also a core value of Google,” said Chowdhury, the Google spokeswoman on Jan 24, during the festival.
The government is increasingly alert to the potential of Internet-based technology to foment unrest in a country scarred by a legacy of violence and terrorism. Anti-graft activists used Facebook and Twitter’s messaging service to stir mass protests that forced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to back legislation he had opposed.
BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. ran into trouble in 2010 after the government threatened to shut it out of the country unless the Waterloo, Canada-based company enabled security services to monitor e-mails. Since January 2011, RIM has let officials monitor its BlackBerry Messenger service, while maintaining that access to encrypted e-mails of its corporate customers must be given by the companies themselves.
Rather than risk a run-in with government, television channels decided to regulate themselves. Starting in May, 24 members of the Indian Broadcasting Federation set up the Broadcast Contents Complaints Council, replacing an informal self-censorship system that had lasted about five years.
“It has been left to the efforts of the broadcast media to resist any government or quasi-government attempt at censorship by invoking grounds such as obscenity, morality, decency, public interest, race or religion,” the IBF said in a May press release to which it directed Bloomberg News when asked for comment.
Beef, Bum, Bras
The efforts the self-censors take to avoid government scrutiny often “ends up ruining the pleasure of watching a movie or TV show,” said media blogger Ninan.
In season six of “Friends,” Jennifer Aniston made audiences around the world laugh when she mistakenly put beef in a dessert. Indian viewers watching the hit television show would miss the joke because Star blanks out the word to avoid offending any of the nation’s more-than 800 million Hindus, for whom the cow is sacred and its meat forbidden.
It’s not only religious sensitivities broadcasters seek to avoid offending: hobos can’t be “bums” and fashion shows go without “bras.” In “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” Adam Sandler’s Israeli soldier turned New York hairdresser isn’t allowed to say the word “terrorist.”
The IBF’s members, which include the Indian units of New York-based Viacom Inc., Burbank, California-based Walt Disney Co. and Bristol, Connecticut-based ESPN, run scrolls across potentially risque shows advising viewers to contact the complaints council if they object to the material.
The body received 3,441 complaints in the last six months of 2011, the latest period for which the IBF made data available. Among viewer complaints about disappointing plots and bad reception, and suggestions for casting changes, 479 submissions were taken up.
-With assistance from Ruth David and Ketaki Gokhale in Mumbai. Editors: Ben Richardson, John Brecher