India’s IT Minister Prevaricates On Social Censorship Policy

India’s Information Technology Minister, Kapil Sibal, has gone on the record to say that “once and for all, without any obfuscation, no government in India will ever censor social media.” This must come as a surprise to the companies and individuals that have been blocked, sued, or antagonized by the government in months past.

Many social media websites, as well as larger indexing services like Google and Yahoo, have been asked to take down material or were the target of suits accusing them of hosting material the government deemed inappropriate. As late as December, Sibal himself said he hoped that such material “never gets uploaded.” So he will have to excuse the internet community if it does not take his assurances seriously.

He also, perhaps more worryingly, said he would force companies “to give us the data, where these images are being uploaded and who is doing it.” That would seem to cross the line from mere censorship to active suppression of subversives.

It is worth noting that our contributor Semil Shah downplayed the importance of Sibal’s statements at the time. That said, the statements were made and courts have echoed them, so they are at least worth including in the discussion.

Google India, in January, responded to the suits with the reasonable and one would think self-evident argument:

No human interference is possible and, moreover, it can’t be feasible to check such incidents. Billions of people across the globe post their articles on the website. Yes, they may be defamatory, obscene but cannot be checked. We cannot control billion minds. Some are conservative, some are liberal and some write all the defamatory and obnoxious articles on web pages. There is a procedure for getting them removed.

Extremely clear words from Mukul Rohatgi, one of Google India’s lawyers on the case.

As with SOPA, one of the obvious arguments (especially in light of things like the Megaupload takedown) is that there are indeed mechanisms in place for removing such things. But any entity making such requests must consider whether their efforts are reasonable and likely to produce any effect. Any effort to remove all obscene, objectionable and defamatory from the internet is doomed to failure.

Sibal’s promise will be impossible to keep. It is clearly at odds with the priorities of the government at this time, and even if it were not, it appears that their policies are liable to sudden change at any moment. India can either choose to accept the internet as it is and use the tools available to regulate it, or they can, as the Delhi High Court threatened, block all infringing websites in the style of China and Iran. Their fantasy policy of actively monitoring the billions of items uploaded or written on the internet is rooted in ignorance, and sooner or later must be abandoned.

Chances are that a country as smart and young as India would never adopt such hostile measures towards its own freedom and the platform that has enabled so much of its growth. But whether it’s political posturing, overexuberant press, or the blustering of disconnected politicians is difficult to tell without a little time to put things into perspective.