Apr 282011
 
Web content in perpetual motion

Free speech advocates and Internet users are protesting new Indian regulations restricting Web content that, among other things, can be considered “disparaging,” “harassing,” “blasphemous” or “hateful.”

The new rules, quietly issued by the country’s Department of Information Technology earlier this month and only now attracting attention, allow officials and private citizens to demand that Internet sites and service providers remove content they consider objectionable on the basis of a long list of criteria.

Critics of the new rules say the restrictions could severely curtail debate and discussion on the Internet, whose use has been growing fast in India.

The list of objectionable content is sweeping and includes anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order.”

The rules highlight the ambivalence with which Indian officials have long treated freedom of expression. The country’s constitution allows “reasonable restrictions” on free speech but lawmakers have periodically stretched that definition to ban books, movies and other material about sensitive subjects like sex, politics and religion.

An Indian state, for example, recently banned an American author’s new biography of the Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi that critics have argued disparages Mr. Gandhi by talking about his relationship with another man.

Although fewer than 10 percent of Indians have access to the Internet, that number has been growing fast — especially on mobile devices. There are more than 700 million cellphone accounts in India.

The country has also established a thriving technology industry that writes software and creates Web services primarily for Western clients.

Even before the new rules — known as the Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011 — India has periodically tried to restrict speech on the Internet. In 2009, the government banned a popular and graphic online comic strip, Savita Bhabhi, about a housewife with an active sex life. Indian officials have also required social networking sites like Orkut to take down posts deemed offensive to ethnic and religious groups.

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