Another day, another government trying to figure out how to censor the internet. This time it's India, where acting communications minister Kapil Sibal is meeting with officials from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook to pressure them to self-censor user content, the New York Times reports. The issue is that someone wrote something mean about a politician, Sonia Gandhi, on her Facebook page.
That's right. While other countries come up with broader excuses for trying to interfere with what people can post online - China says it's trying to stop porn, the US says it's trying to protect copyright holders - Sibal is openly just upset about politicians being criticized. His solution, the report says, is to have web companies use humans to monitor and delete objectionable content before it gets posted.
Since TechCrunch has lots of readers in India, and uses Facebook for comments, I guess this means Facebook would be required to decide what comments people in the country are allowed to post here? Or would TechCrunch get blocked like it is in China if there are any comments by anyone that are negative about Indian politicians? Hard to say at this point. Sibal's effort isn't a law.
But the government has already passed other laws recently that have successfully put pressure on web companies to self-censor. An October 2009 law requires web company executives to comply with take-down or site-blocking requests from the government or face a fine and seven years of jail. Sibal's ministry issued a vague set of rules in April that forces web companies to delete content that politicians or citizens object to within 36 hours, and don't provide ways for content creators to defend or appeal their actions.
There are, of course, some good reasons for the Indian government to be concerned. Online postings can worsen existing religious and ethnic tensions within the diverse country. But democracies need to let citizens speak freely in order to be understood and represented by their politicians. The internet is a vital way for this to happen. Self-interested efforts like Sibal's today need to be fought.
Indian readers, let us know in comments if there are any campaigns against these actions that we can help promote, and I'll update this post with links to them. In the meantime, Sonia Gandhi's Facebook page accepts user comments, so you can go let her know how you feel there.