Jan 132012

Last month Kapil Sibal, acting telecommunications minister for India, floated the proposition that social networks actively filter all content appearing on their systems.  Now comes news that a judge in New Delhi also thinks web censorship appropriate.  From the New York Times:

The comments of the judge, Suresh Kait, came in response to a lawsuit, filed by a private citizen in the capital, New Delhi. The suit demands that Internet companies screen content before it is posted on sites like Facebook, Google or Yahoo, that might offend the religious sentiments of Indians. A related criminal case accuses the companies — 21 in all — of violating an Indian law that applies to books, pamphlets and other material that is deemed to “deprave or corrupt.”

A trial court in New Delhi on Friday ordered that summons be served in the criminal case to officials at all 21 companies at their foreign headquarters’ addresses.

Google and Facebook refused to comment on the case, except to say they had filed a motion in the New Delhi High Court to dismiss the criminal case.

Their motion will be considered on Monday.

In addition to the general policy issues of government web censorship, there are two particularly interesting facets to this particular situation. For one thing, the lawsuit was filed by an individual, Vinay Rai. Rai is the editor of a Hindi and Urdu publication and had previously studied law.

In a telephone interview Friday evening, Mr. Rai, 39, said he stumbled upon material that he found offensive about the Hindu goddess of learning, called Saraswati. He said he also found pictures and texts about the Prophet Muhammad. Mr. Rai said he could not describe what he saw in any detail, because it had been sealed by the court.

The situation Rai describes is hardly unique: with a technology as expansive as the Internet, it’s likely to contain lots of content that would offend some of its users. Ultimately policymakers will need to choose which they want to protect: free speech, or people’s right not to be offended. And that’s assuming the latter is even possible. It really isn’t, even if just as a practical matter, which the other interesting facet of the proposal encapsulates. And that is how this content screening would take place.

Prescreening content, as the court case demands, would require a small army of editors considering the scale and speed of user-generated material posted online. On You Tube, for instance, 48 hours of video are uploaded every minute; on Facebook, over 250 million photos are posted every day. That kind of filtering would create what one technology company official likened to a “morning edition” of the Internet and an “evening edition” of the Internet – with editors screening all user-generated content that could potentially offend one section of the population.

Internet companies already employ people to review complaints of illegal and offensive content. Facebook and Google, for instance, have teams in their Silicon Valley headquarters offices to remove content that is illegal in certain countries – offending the king in country X or glorifying fascists in country Y – or that violates the company’s own standards.

There are more extreme means to protect citizens from the Web. As the Indian judge alluded to in his statement in court on Thursday, China has a firewall through which all Web content passes.

Mukul Rohatgi, an attorney representing Google in India, described such a prospect this way: “The remedy can’t be worse than the disease,” he said.

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