New Delhi, Jan 12: An Indian Judge on Thursday told Internet giants Google and Facebook that their websites can be blocked "like China" if they fail to come up with a way to remove religiously offensive content, reports said. "Like China, we will block all such websites," Justice Suresh Kait was quoted as saying, asking representatives from Facebook and Google India to develop mechanisms to keep a check and remove "offensive and objectionable" material from their web pages.
The Indian holdings of Facebook and Google had on Wednesday challenged trial court orders issuing summons to the two California-based firms, following which the High Court had issued a notice to the Delhi Police. Executives from 19 Internet companies and websites, including Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and YouTube, have been summoned to face a trial for purportedly hosting offensive content by the trial court in a hearing in December.
Based on a complaint filed by a journalist Vinay Rai, Metropolitan Magistrate Sudesh Kumar had on Dec 23 directed the Indian government to take "immediate appropriate steps" and also file a report in the court due on Friday. The magistrate of the trial court had observed that the material submitted by the complainant contained obscene pictures and derogatory articles pertaining to various Hindu gods, Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ.
On Thursday, even though he did not stay the proceedings against the two websites before the magistrate's court, Justice Kait agreed with the plea of their lawyers that they would not press for an effective hearing in the trial court on Friday. Appearing for Internet search bellwether Google, Former Additional Solicitor General Mukul Rohatgi, said that the postings of "obscene, objectionable and defamatory" articles and other things cannot be filtered or monitored. "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," he said.
Making efforts to distinguish between the company’s Indian and U.S. operation, Rohatgi said, "The US-based Google Inc is the service provider and not me (Google India) and hence, we are not liable for the action of my holding company." "Moreover, it is criminal case where a vicarious liability can be fastened on a company which has no role, whatsoever, in the alleged offence,” he added, citing provisions of the Information Technology Act and asserting that they were not authors of offensive content. Representing the India operations of Facebook, that has more than 800 million users worldwide, advocate Siddharth Luthra, questioned the authenticity of the evidence provided to the magisterial court by the complainant. "We do not know as to when, how and from where, the documents came into being. They are not the documents as per the provisions of the Evidence Act," he said, asserting that his client can not be held accountable for the acts of the third parties.
Issuing a notice to the petitioner journalist Vinay Rai, the court fixed the next hearing of the case for on Jan 16, even as Internet users across India voiced criticism for the court’s blanket ban threat on Wednesday. "Courts used to be our final recourse," said a Twitter user while another person on the micro-blogging website said, "There goes the Delhi HC's 'progressive' rep! (sic)". Wednesday’s events are the latest skirmish in a fledgling battle over website content in India, home to 100 million Internet users, the third-largest user base behind China and the United States which is forecast to grow to 300 million users in the next three years. A New York Times report last month said that Telecoms and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal had called executives from Internet companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove content that maligned Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi.
The move had unleashed a storm of criticism from Internet users, who complained of censorship in the world's largest democracy even though Sibal denied he was promoting such a suppression, but said some images and statements risked fanning tensions in conservative India.