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India not interested in pre-screening online content

The Indian Minister of Communications and IT contests reports that the country wanted pre-screening of Internet content

India never asked Internet companies to pre-screen objectionable content, a federal minister said in interviews with local TV channels.

Minister for Communications and IT Kapil Sibal has been at the center of a storm after some newspapers reported this week that the government had asked Internet companies like Yahoo, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content on their sites even before they go online.

Executives of two Internet companies confirmed under condition of anonymity that the minister had in fact asked them for such filtering of content.

A proposal to pre-screen content would be foolish, Sibal told NDTV.com in an interview published online Friday. "It would be madness to ask for it," Sibal told another TV channel, IBNLive.com.

The government wants the companies to suggest a mechanism for Internet companies to remove offensive content after it is posted, according to Sibal. Some of the Internet companies were allowing content that would fail to live up to the laws that they are enforcing in their own country by their own community standards, he said.

Sibal said that the government had been in discussions with the Internet companies since September to plug a major loophole in Indian law, after some demeaning and degrading religious content was found online. Some newspapers said that the government was objecting to content relating to India's political leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

When there is some objectionable content online, the government does not have many options, Sibal said. It can't sue the intermediaries, the Internet companies that host the content, because they claim that they are only carriers.

But if the government wants to pursue the people who have posted the content, the intermediaries do not disclose their identities, even if they are suspected terrorists, Sibal said. If the intermediaries do disclose the identity and the person is abroad, the government will be spending money and taking time suing the person, while the offensive content stays online, he added.

In instances when his ministry asked for content to be removed, the Internet companies have not done so citing their community standards, he added.

Rules framed earlier this year around India's Information Technology Act require intermediaries like ISPs to remove content that is found objectionable within a period of 36 hours of being notified of the content. Intermediaries are also required to warn users against posting or uploading a variety of objectionable content in their user agreements and other rules and regulations.

But often in the past when the intermediaries have been hauled to court for not removing objectionable content including copyright material, the Indian operations of some Internet companies have said that the matter lies with the principal company in the U.S. that runs the sites, a number of lawyers and activists have said.

Sibal probably aims to change that when he said in the interviews that he was hoping to evolve a "consensual mechanism" that will ensure that content that is not acceptable in any civilized society is not uploaded on the Internet platforms.

The minister said he is planning a meeting with representatives of the Internet companies next Thursday, which will be open to the media. If the Internet companies continue to throw up their hands, the government will have to evolve guidelines on its own, Sibal said.

He said he was not concerned about content relating to politicians and other public figures, but derogatory images of gods and goddesses of various religions.

The Indian operations of the Internet companies were not immediately available for comment after business hours.

Google said in a statement on Tuesday that when content is legal but controversial the company doesn't remove it because people's differing views should be respected, so long as they are legal. "We will remove any content that violates our terms, which are designed to keep material that is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity off the service," Facebook said.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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