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India: Internet Companies Bow to Censorship Demands

India took a giant leap back in time when it demanded that 20 major Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter present plans to filter “anti-religious,” or “anti-social” material from the content available to Indian citizens.

Political leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought a case against the Internet companies demanding the pre-emptive removal of “objectionable” material, according to the government. “Objectionable” material includes blasphemous material and religious slurs, but much of the content also includes critical and unflattering content of many of India's leading politicians, including Sonia Gandhi, according to the Financial Times’ blog, beyondbrics.

Cartoon by Bryant Arnold, CartoonADay.com. Used under a Creative Commons 2.5 license (BY-NC)

Cartoon by Bryant Arnold, CartoonADay.com. Used under a Creative Commons 2.5 license (BY-NC)

After initial resistance the Internet companies have finally bowed to India’s high-handed demands and conceded to present plans for filtering “offensive content,” by February 21, 2012. The next hearing will be held by the courts on March 1. Authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia and Egypt have made similar demands but India is the first robust democracy, with a thriving domestic media scene, to make such sweeping demands.

Is India living up to its position as the world's largest democracy? Not according its citizens. Blogger AdityaT quotes a Google advocate in a blog post on igyaan.in:

The issue relates to a constitutional issue of freedom of speech and expression, and suppressing it was not possible as the right to the freedom of speech in democratic India separates us from a totalitarian regime like China.

What to do Baba thinks:

It is almost impossible to ban Google or Facebook in India. [..] I hope and believe, that the matter be settled both for the good of society as well as the web. Let us punish the guilty and not choose a scapegoat.

Citizen outrage may be too late. Google has already started to direct users away from the domain blogspot.com, and redirecting them to a censored blogspot.in, the Indian version of the blog site. Material censored on Indian sites and versions of search engines, will still be available outside of India. Yahoo and Facebook are refusing to consider censoring their material, as they claim they have nothing to do with the objectionable materials, according to blog Jaipur.co.

Google has a long history of wading into gray areas when it comes to appeasing irate governments. Founded on the ideal of “don't be evil,” Google has stopped using that slogan in public, as the motto has occasionally been trashed in favor of profits rather than providing service that serves the public best.

Internet behemoths Google, Facebook and Twitter, have guidelines that require them to “adhere to domestic law,” meaning that they will remove content that violates local law. The three companies have pointed to this in self-defense from accusations hurled by human rights advocates countless times in recent years, first in China, then in Egypt, and now in India.

However, those guidelines were not put in place to enable governments to choke the free flow of information. The reality is that the Internet is ungovernable forum, and the digital sphere has few laws. In India, Google is far from being a victim, it is allowing governments to censor material to avoid losing 121 million users if the government blocks Google completely, and a potential 900 million more as India's Internet users multiply every year.

Google isn’t bowing to government censorship to provide at least “some” ability to Indian citizens to access information, it is too afraid to lose millions of users to its competition.

Google’s move is directly contradictory to its recent withdrawal from China. Although obviously not the best business move, one of the most significant measures Google could have taken to fight censorship was withdrawing from China. Timothy B. Lee wrote on the New York Times’ Room for Debate blog:

Google’s withdrawal from China has important symbolic value. Google has become one of the world’s most prestigious brands, and for the last four years it has lent undeserved legitimacy to the government’s censorship efforts.

It’s mind-boggling that Google would follow this huge achievement with submitting to India’s censorship demands.

So, we enter the First Digital War. It’s governments versus the Internet, and even worse, it’s the Internet companies versus each other in their quest for Internet dominance. Internet companies do an enormous disservice to their users, and to the fight against corruption in India, by succumbing to the government’s requirement that they censor or close up shop.

Sure, Google might lose a significant portion of Internet users to a competitor’s social media site, so might Facebook, but in trying to beat each other out to reign supreme in the digital world, they seem to be slowly destroying the foundations on which they were built: freedom, empowerment, and an obligation to “don’t be evil.” Kevin Kelleher phrases it aptly on Reuters’ MediaFile blog when he writes that Google’s slogan, “’don’t be evil’ became ‘let’s all be evil.’”

Google has stopped using that slogan in public. It’s time they brought it back.

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