The rules of political speech on the Internet are usually pretty simple. In America, almost anything goes. In places like China, the censors call the shots. But in India — a boisterous democracy that’s riven by religious and ethnic tension — the game is far trickier, as Google is discovering.
In September, lawyers at Google Inc.’s New Delhi office got a tip from an Internet user about alarming content on the company’s social networking site, Orkut. People had posted offensive comments about the chief minister of India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, who had died just a few days earlier in a helicopter crash.
Google’s response: It removed not just the material but also the entire user group that contained it, a person familiar with the matter says. The Internet giant feared the comments could heighten tensions at a time when thousands of mourners of the popular politician were emptying into the street.
The incident shows the treacherous terrain Google must navigate as it expands in India, the world’s most-populous nation after China and a major growth market for Web searches, online advertising and mobile phone software. As Google broadens its reach, it must increasingly tweak the way it operates to suit new cultures. While authoritarian countries pose well-known challenges, Google is learning that even democracies such as India can be fraught with legal and cultural complications. Its experience here could serve as a precedent for other Web companies.
The nation of 1.2 billion is the world’s largest democracy and in principle affords free speech to its citizens. But the country has a volatile mix of religious, ethnic and caste politics and a history of mob violence. So, the government has the authority to curtail speech rights in certain cases. India’s Constitution encapsulates that gray zone: Free speech is subject to “reasonable restrictions” for such purposes as maintaining “public order, decency or morality.”
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Authorities say Internet companies in India, including Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc. and Twitter, are expected to help government enforce those standards online by removing objectionable material and, occasionally, helping to track down users. Under a law that took effect in October, corporate officials from any Web site that fails to comply with requests to take down material or block sites can face a fine and a jail sentence of up to seven years.
Indian Muslims protest against postings on Google’s Orkut site.
India is a secular state, but its people are predominantly Hindu, with a large Muslim minority and significant populations of other religions. Religious and caste tensions have periodically erupted in bloodletting in the 62 years since independence from Britain. In 1992, Hindu activists destroyed a mosque that they believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu deity Rama, setting off riots that killed more than 1,000. The memory remains raw in India.
“If you are doing business here, you should follow the local law, the sentiments of the people, the culture of the country,” says Gulshan Rai, an official in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, who is overseeing implementation of the new law. “If somebody starts abusing Lord Rama on a Web site, that could start riots,” he said.
Iqbal Chagla, a leading Indian attorney on civil liberties and public interest litigation, says fears of public rioting sparked by Web content — or incendiary content in any medium — are overstated. “Communal tensions become largely an excuse for denial of civil liberties and denial of freedom of speech,” Mr. Chagla said. “It’s a very thin line that’s being tread.”
Still, Google has learned to be wary of material that could ignite unrest, from incendiary comments about politicians such as Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi to user groups bashing revered historical or religious figures.
“In those gray areas it is really hard,” says Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel, who oversees the legal aspects of new Google product launches. “On the one hand, we believe very strongly in political speech and, on the other hand, in India they do riot and they blow up buses.”
Google’s policy, Ms. Wong says, is to review material flagged by Indian users of Orkut and other Web services it owns, such as YouTube. Google checks whether the content violates its global rules for users, which ban materials like child pornography and hate speech. The company pledges to abide by the laws of the countries it operates in. In India, that means making some content inaccessible from the local versions of its sites, such as orkut.co.in.—the default page users see when accessing Orkut from India. Google says it only blocks content brought to its attention by users or law enforcement authorities and only when it considers the request valid. The company cannot control what content is posted on third-party Web sites but controls what can be found through its search engine.
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The Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist political party in India, is known for coming down hard on its critics in the print and TV media. The group is targeting Google for content on social networking sites like Orkut.
There are several user groups on Orkut with harsh rhetoric targeting political and religious figures. One anti-Sonia Gandhi group has an “X” through her photo and describes her as “Lady Hitler,” accusing her of not supporting the cause of ethnic Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka. (Ms. Gandhi’s husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil Sri Lankan extremist.) Congress Party representatives didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Google began ramping up in India in 2007 to capitalize on burgeoning Internet use. The country has about 52 million Web users, according to the International Telecommunication Union, making it one of the largest markets in the world. There is room for growth, since only about 5% of India’s population is yet online. Google declined to comment about the finances of its India operation.
Orkut, with 17.6 million users in India in October, is the country’s third-most visited Web site, according to comScore Inc. Google acknolweges that it was taken aback early on at how the site gave rise to explosive debates on topics like religion and politics. In mid-2007, the company began fielding complaints from police and users about profile pages with derogatory comments about figures living and dead. These have included B.R. Ambedkar, an architect of India’s Constitution who was an activist for lower-caste Indians, and Ms. Gandhi of the Congress Party.
Supporters of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, chief minister of of India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, rallied in September following his death in a helicopter crash.
The Web giant ran into particularly fierce opposition from supporters of the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist political party that wants to increase the influence of ethnic Marathis — natives of Maharashtra, the state that includes Mumbai.
In June 2007, Shiv Sena supporters stormed cyber cafes outside Mumbai, damaging computers and harassing owners, when they discovered postings on Orkut denigrating Balasaheb Thackeray, the group’s founder, and Chatrapati Shivaji, a 17th century warrior king revered by Marathis for battling the Mughal Empire. Google removed certain Shiv Sena-related groups at the request of local authorities.
Shailesh Patil, a spokesman for the Shiv Sena, says the group’s media division in Mumbai regularly fields complaints from the public about Orkut and YouTube and passes them to Google and local police. Last year Google removed a YouTube video that was “asking questions about Shiv Sena, and whether it is good or bad,” Mr. Patil said. “This is a country with a lot of religions and sentimental values,” he added. “If that censorship is not there, some people may utilize these mediums to disturb the harmony of the country, and it may lead to chaos.”
Mr. Patil said not every site that criticizes the Shiv Sena should be taken down, because that might just give the content more publicity. Recently, a local Web user complained about a site that allows viewers to hurl virtual tomatoes or garlands at politicians, including Mr. Thackeray. “We told people to throw more garlands, so automatically the proportion of tomatoes will go down,” Mr. Patil said. The site is no longer up.
Police in the cities of Mumbai and Pune began paying greater attention to Web content and passing complaints to Google. The Mumbai police set up an around-the-clock facility for trained staff to “cyber patrol” the Web and look for violations, while also responding to outside complaints from Internet users.
The city’s cyber enforcement efforts are much broader than Google. Officials are also tracking things like credit card fraud, pornography and hacking. But one of the nine categories of complaints Mumbai tracks is simply titled “Orkut.” Local officials said they keep an eye on other social networking sites, too, including Facebook, but Google’s site receives the most complaints and gets the most attention.
Google’s New Dehli office subsequently removed offensive material about Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy posted on the company’s social-networking site.
“We’re trying to educate youth. Don’t think if you’re posting something wrong, no one is watching you,” said Deven Bharti, a commissioner in Mumbai police’s crime branch. “It’s just the opposite. Every footprint is being tracked. It’s easy to detect these crimes.”
Free speech is important, Mr. Bharti said, but religious, regional and caste sensitivities have to be taken into account. “You have to consider India’s peculiarities,” he said.
The police, central government officials and Google declined to comment on most specific cases in which material has been taken down. But a few have spilled into public view because the police have prosecuted alleged wrongdoers.
In May of 2008, police from Pune arrested a 22-year-old tech worker in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, for content on an Orkut profile titled, “I hate Sonia Gandhi.” Google took down the material and gave the user’s IP address to police, allowing them to track down his physical whereabouts, said Chandrakant Thakur, a constable sent to make the arrest.
Google wouldn’t disclose what precisely was posted about Ms. Gandhi, but said it determined the material violated India’s obscenity laws. The company said it provided the user’s IP address only after police obtained a court order. The defendant was released on bail, and D.M. Bhandkoli, a senior inspector for cybercrime in the Pune police department, declined to comment on the status of the case.
Some Indian Web users are conflicted about how far free speech should go on the Web. “If someone wants to say anything negative about the government or politics, they should be able to express it, but they shouldn’t hurt any individual (ethnic or religious) community’s feelings,” said Gaurav Singh, a 26-year-old New Delhi resident who has been an Orkut member for two years.
Some lawyers say Google doesn’t push back much on requests to take down Orkut content. “Sometimes they are uncomfortable about it, but they tend to accede to most requests,” said Lawrence Liang, a civil liberties attorney Google consulted in 2007 when it was devising a strategy on how to deal with Orkut controversies in India.
Gitanjali Duggal, Google’s in-house litigator in India, says Google now has an organized approach. The company tries — even if doesn’t always succeed — to resist many requests to remove material. “We do have elbow room in exercising our discretion,” she said. “Literally on a daily basis we push back on these kinds of complaints.”
Ms. Duggal says she has argued to authorities that whatever is allowed in print should be allowed online. The Indian press is full of biting political commentary. Newspaper and television journalists regularly skewer public figures for being corrupt, ineffective, or soft on Pakistan, India’s rival. Ms. Duggal says there has to be something especially incendiary in Internet content to warrant intervention by Google. The company declined to provide any data on the proportion of complaints that result in content removal.
“Saying ‘I hate Shiv Sena’ is one thing, but saying ‘I Hate Shiv Sena because they hate Muslims’ is another thing,” Ms. Duggal said, because it “brings in the concept of religion.” She said Google is especially sensitive to any comments that might be seen as defamatory against a public figure, since libel in India is a criminal offense punishable by jail time.
However murky the free-speech zone in India may be, experts say the country has steered far clear of the systematic censorship of many other countries. Saudi Arabia bans Orkut entirely. China maintains what many experts believe to be the most sophisticated Web filtering system in the world, known as the “Great Firewall.”
Google’s Ms. Wong notes that in India, cultural nuances pose a different set of challenges. “India does value free speech and political speech,” she says. “But they are weighing the harm of free speech against violence in their streets.”
Source : The Wallstreet Journal