Earth to Kapil Sibal: Sonia Gandhi is not God — Lakshmi Chaudhry

6 December 2011

“I urge you to write KAPIL SIBAL IS AN IDIOT as your Facebook status message, use the hashtag #IdiotKapilSibal on Twitter,” asks a new campaign launched by the left-leaning site Kafila.org. The communication minister’s reported effort to crack down on offensive internet content evoked widespread abuse online, ranging from angry Facebook updates to Twitter-fueled invective.

While much of this is amusing – and heartening – it begs the bigger question: why is there such poor protection for political speech in our country? The answer lies elsewhere, not in the personalities of those involved in this latest imbroglio. Kapil Sibal may be an idiot — or not — but more importantly, he represents the feudal mentality of the broader political class, which is in turn enabled by the multinational companies — all in the guise of protecting our cultural sensibilities.

Sibal’s latest offensive — to force Facebook, Google et al to prescreen content — is merely an escalation of an already aggressive policy against the “defamation” of political leaders. In 2008, two young men were arrested for posting derogatory content on Orkut about Sonia Gandhi. (Google obediently turned their ISP address over, and the local authorities did the rest) Shiv Sena supporters in the past have trashed cyber cafes in protest of Orkut pages denigrating Bal Thackeray and Shivaji. Again, the anti-Shiv Sena groups were shut down. More recently, Digvijaya Singh filed an FIR against certain sites for taking “highly offensive” potshots at him.

Sibal’s latest offensive — to force Facebook, Google et al to prescreen content — is merely an escalation of an already aggressive policy against the “defamation” of political leaders. AFP
And these are just the most public instances of the ongoing under-the-radar censorship of online speech. The companies’ unofficial response to the latest demand for prescreening, in fact, encourages such post-publication bullying: “We have told the government that we will cooperate with the government in penalising those found guilty of uploading objectionable content … we have urged them to prosecute such elements under relevant Acts by filing cases against them.”

India may only be number five in requests for removal of content — 68 between January and June this year — but it also has a far looser definition of ‘offensive.’ As a Firstpost article notes, anything that can be censored if it is deemed a threat to national “unity” or “integrity,” “public order,” “grossly offensive or menacing in nature,” “disparaging,” or “otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.”

The excuse for this free-floating authoritarianism is always the same: We Indians are just sooo sensitive.

The “communal sentiment” bogeyman is repeatedly evoked by various government officials, including the likes of Gulshan Rai who told the Wall Street Journal: “If you are doing business here, you should follow the local law, the sentiments of the people, the culture of the country, … If somebody starts abusing Lord Rama on a Web site, that could start riots.”

The same figleaf was also offered up by an unnamed “top official” this time around: “What do you think about these derogatory pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, the (Indian) prime minister and the Congress president? Anybody will feel outraged. The government of India does not believe in censorship. But sensitivity and feelings of different communities cannot be allowed to be hurt.”

What is striking about the statement is the way it easily clubs together a holy icon with two entirely mortal politicians. Our leaders are indeed sacred cows, at least in their minds. The Prophet, Lord Rama, Shivaji, Bal Thackeray, Sonia Gandhi…a pantheon of gods installed on a lofty pedestal beyond reproach. To speak against any is to invite the equivalent of an online fatwa.

Two decades of liberalisation may have delivered the trappings of modernity — malls, wifi, IT companies and SEZs — but has left untouched the socialist/feudal mindset where speaking against the powerful is viewed as blasphemy. In the minds of our leaders and their supporters, the average citizen remains a lowly nobody who needs to always remember his “place.” Hence, when Harvinder Singh slapped Sharad Pawar in a publicity-seeking stunt, they were shocked not just by the act but also the widespread celebration it evoked.

When Sibal points Facebook officials to the computer screen, declaring, “This is unacceptable,” he is referring not just to the anti-Sonia page but the sheer presumption it symbolises. And yes, this isn’t just about censorship but feudal entitlement, the entrenched privilege of the political class to remain unsullied by the grubby words of the teeming masses.

The problem for our politicians is that the market didn’t just change our lifestyles but also our mindset. The new Indian middle class is no longer willing to content to quietly air its discontent in the discreet privacy of the home. This new confidence accentuated by the anonymity of the internet has uncorked decades of seething rage which now finds vituperative expression online.

Now is much of this content tasteless? Yes. Even outright offensive in a number of cases, perhaps. But that is the price of being a public figure in a modern democracy. Just google the terms Obama and n***r.

Free speech isn’t pretty. If it were, it wouldn’t be truly free.

Responding to an attempt to ban demeaning comments on death memorial sites — which is surely the very definition of obscene — free speech advocate Ken Paulson writes, “The truth is that the free flow of online opinions — even the deeply offensive and emotionally jarring — is a vibrant sign of a democracy at work.” More so when the comments are aimed not at some poor dead soul but at alive-and-well politicians.

There is no doubt that the “community standards” for offensive speech in India are likely to be stricter than those of the United States. But cultural difference has become a pretext for American companies to accede to political demands for censorship. The Wall Street Journal reported last year:

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.”

But who is ‘they’? These people who trash cafes to protest anti-Shiv Sena web groups. Who demand the arrest of RSS leader KS Sudarshan for calling Sonia a “CIA agent”. Who are far too immature, irresponsible and highstrung to handle a truly free internet, or for that matter, democracy.

Who, oh who could they possibly be?

http://www.firstpost.com/politics/earth-to-kapil-sibal-sonia-gandhi-is-not-god-149154.html

Screen offensive content about PM, Sonia, Sibal tells Facebook. “No censorship, but objectionable matter will be removed” — Sibal.

Screen offensive content about PM, Sonia, Sibal tells Facebook

D K Singh Posted online: Tue Dec 06 2011, 02:21 hrs

New Delhi : Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal today asked Internet companies to screen alleged derogatory, defamatory and inflammatory content about religious figures and Indian leaders such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi on the Web.
Officials from Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo!, who met the minister, however, refused to make a commitment beyond saying they would look into any specific complaint that was brought to their notice.

Their response is learnt to have upset Sibal greatly — more so because, sources said, a US embassy official called up an additional secretary in his ministry after the meeting to express displeasure over the Indian position.

“This is completely unacceptable. The embassy has no business interfering,” a top official told The Indian Express this evening. Sibal himself declined to comment.

At the meeting, Sibal reportedly showed the executives some offensive pictures of Sonia Gandhi on a Facebook page.

“What do you think about these derogatory pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, the (Indian) prime minister and the Congress president? Anybody will feel outraged. The government of India does not believe in censorship. But sensitivity and feelings of different communities cannot be allowed to be hurt. They (the Internet companies) host these sites and they must regulate it (the content),” a top official functionary said.

Sources said Sibal has been taking up the issue with Internet companies for the past three months, but has got no positive response. The New York Times reported on its website today that Sibal had had a first meeting with “top Internet service providers and Facebook” about six weeks ago, and had met the same executives again in late November.

In the first meeting, NYT said, Sibal had showed the executives a Facebook page that “maligned” Sonia, and told them, “This is unacceptable”. In the second meeting, Sibal had told them “that he expected them to use human beings to screen content, not technology”, NYT said, quoting an unnamed executive.

The report, which was published before Sibal’s meeting today, said that the executives would tell the minister that “his demand is impossible, given the volume of user-generated content coming from India, and that they cannot be responsible for determining what is and isn’t defamatory or disparaging”.

Congress leader Digvijaya Singh recently filed an FIR against websites which he said hosted “highly offensive” content against him. — With NYT

http://static.indianexpress.com/m-images/Tue%20Dec%2006%202011,%2002:21%20hrs/M_Id_253011_Kapil_Sibal.jpg

New Delhi, December 6, 2011 | UPDATED 11:15 IST

Google, Facebook get govt diktat: Monitor ‘offensive’ content

Taking objection to some content on Facebook, Google and similar social platforms, the Indian government has asked the companies to find a way to ensure that material of a defamatory or inflammatory nature is screened before it goes online.

However, reports said there was no intention to censor such platforms.

Over the last three months, the government has reportedly been in a series of talks with these companies to put in place a monitoring mechanism.

The New York Times reported that Telecom & IT Minister Kapil Sibal had called legal representatives from the various internet service providers and Facebook to his office about six weeks ago. He had showed them a Facebook page that allegedly maligned Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

“This is unacceptable,” he had told the representatives, one executive who had attended the meeting said. The minister had asked them to find a way to monitor what is posted on their sites.

In a November meeting, Sibal had reportedly told the representatives of these firms that he expected them to use humans to screen content, not technology, one executive said. The three executives said Sibal had told these companies that he expects them to set up a proactive prescreening system, with staffers looking for objectionable content and deleting it before it is posted.

The executives said that Sibal’s demand was impossible, given the volume of user-generated content coming from India, and that they cannot be responsible for determining what is and isn’t defamatory or disparaging.

The New York Times reported that Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft did not respond immediately to calls for comment, and that a Google spokeswoman said the company had no comment on the issue.

Facebook has more than 25 million users in India while Google has more than 100 million.

The government’s demand comes after new rules were issued by the ministry in April asking internet service providers to delete information posted on websites that officials or private citizens deemed disparaging or harassing.

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/indian-government-facebook-google-social-media/1/162933.html

No censorship but objectionable matter will be removed: Kapil Sibal

6 Dec, 2011, 01.44PM IST, IANS

NEW DELHI: Communications Minister Kapil Sibal Tuesday said that the government would take steps to screen and eliminate “objectionable” content on social networking sites after platforms like Facebook, during a meeting with the minister, declined to remove offensive content.

“Religious sentiments of many communities and of any reasonable person is being hurt because of content which is on the sites,” Sibal said.

The minister said he had first met with officials of Facebook, Twitter and Orkut on Sep 5 to discuss the concerns of the government over objectionable pictures being posted on their sites by users.

The pictures, which were shown off the record, depicted Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in bad light, while some others were insulting to various religions.

After a series of meetings, the companies still did not provide a solution to the problem and did not remove the content either.

“The secretary, department of telecommunication, Chandershaker called a meeting with them on Oct 19 and it was decided that a framework would be prepared for the code of conduct of the intermediary in cases of these kinds of material or content,” said Sibal.

“They orally agreed to many of the clauses but in a written reply did not agreed to any of the clauses,” he added.

The minister said he did not want to come to the press on this issue but was forced to do so after the New York Times reported that the government was trying to censor these sites, which was not true.

“This is far from the truth. If someone does not wants to remove this kind of incendiary material then the government has to do something about it,” said Sibal.

NEW DELHI: Communications Minister Kapil Sibal Tuesday said that the government would take steps to screen and eliminate “objectionable” content on social networking sites after platforms like Facebook, during a meeting with the minister, declined to remove offensive content.

“Religious sentiments of many communities and of any reasonable person is being hurt because of content which is on the sites,” Sibal said.

The minister said he had first met with officials of Facebook, Twitter and Orkut on Sep 5 to discuss the concerns of the government over objectionable pictures being posted on their sites by users.

The pictures, which were shown off the record, depicted Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in bad light, while some others were insulting to various religions.

After a series of meetings, the companies still did not provide a solution to the problem and did not remove the content either.

“The secretary, department of telecommunication, Chandershaker called a meeting with them on Oct 19 and it was decided that a framework would be prepared for the code of conduct of the intermediary in cases of these kinds of material or content,” said Sibal.

“They orally agreed to many of the clauses but in a written reply did not agreed to any of the clauses,” he added.

The minister said he did not want to come to the press on this issue but was forced to do so after the New York Times reported that the government was trying to censor these sites, which was not true.

“This is far from the truth. If someone does not wants to remove this kind of incendiary material then the government has to do something about it,” said Sibal.

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/no-censorship-but-objectionable-matter-will-be-removed-kapil-sibal/articleshow/11004939.cms

December 5, 2011, 6:33 AM
India Asks Google, Facebook to Screen User Content
By HEATHER TIMMONS

Anindito Mukherjee/European Pressphoto Agency
Kapil Sibal, Minister for Telecommunications and Human Resources Development, in a 2005 file photo.
The Indian government has asked Internet companies and social media sites like Facebook to prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online, three executives in the information technology industry say.

Top officials from the Indian units of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook are meeting with Kapil Sibal, India’s acting telecommunications minister, on Monday afternoon to discuss the issue, say two executives of Internet companies. The executives asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media on the issue.

Mr. Sibal’s office confirmed that he would meet with Internet service providers Monday but did not provide more information about the content of the meeting.

About six weeks ago, Mr. Sibal called legal representatives from the top Internet service providers and Facebook into his New Delhi office, said one of the executives who was briefed on the meeting.

At the meeting, Mr. Sibal showed attendees a Facebook page that maligned the Congress Party’s president, Sonia Gandhi. “This is unacceptable,” he told attendees, the executive said, and he asked them to find a way to monitor what is posted on their sites.

In the second meeting with the same executives in late November, Mr. Sibal told them that he expected them to use human beings to screen content, not technology, the executive said.

The three executives said Mr. Sibal has told these companies that he expects them to set up a proactive prescreening system, with staffers looking for objectionable content and deleting it before it is posted.

The executives said representatives from these companies will tell Mr. Sibal at the meeting on Monday that his demand is impossible, given the volume of user-generated content coming from India, and that they cannot be responsible for determining what is and isn’t defamatory or disparaging.

“If there’s a law and there’s a court order, we can follow up on it,” said an executive from one of the companies attending the meeting. But these companies can’t be in the business of deciding what is and isn’t legal to post, he said.

Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft did not respond immediately to calls for comment, and a Google spokeswoman said the company had no comment on the issue. Facebook said earlier this year it has more than 25 million users in India. Google has over 100 million Internet users in India.

The demand is the Indian government’s latest attempt to monitor and control electronic information. In April, the ministry issued rules demanding Internet service providers delete information posted on Web sites that officials or private citizens deemed disparaging or harassing. Last year, the government battled with Blackberry’s manufacturer, Research In Motion, threatening to shut the company’s service off in India if it did not allow government officials greater access to users’ messages.

The Indian government also plans to set up its own unit to monitor information posted on Web sites and social media sites, executives said, which will report to Gulshan Rai, the director general of India’s cyber-security monitor.

A man who answered the phone in Mr. Rai’s office said he did not talk to the press and hung up when a reporter asked for a press contact.

Some Indian cities like Mumbai have already set up special units to monitor Internet sites like Facebook and Orkut, the social networking site operated by Google, for content considered disparaging or obscene. India has made nearly 70 requests to Google to remove content between January and June of this year, one of the highest request rates of any country though less than the United States’s 92 and Brazil’s 224, according to Google’s transparency report.

Vikas Bajaj contributed reporting from Mumbai.

http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/india-asks-google-facebook-others-to-screen-user-content/#more-10529

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