Google and Facebook challenge Indian courts over web censorship lawsuits


India's the most populous democracy in the world, but it's no stranger to censorship efforts — over the years, it's struggled with balancing free expression and quelling partisan violence. Now, India's courts are considering web censorship measures in response to lawsuits over obscene material (like controversial religious statements) on websites like Google and Facebook. But the web giants aren't sitting quietly: as The Times of India reports, Google India's advocate told the Delhi high court today that blocking websites is not an option, since India is not a "totalitarian" regime like China.

India permits the restriction of content that's prejudicial, that is thought to instigate hatred between different groups, or that "threatens national integrity." Censorship is thus a troublesome cultural issue, since for some Indians, the question may conjure thoughts about something like shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre. As Firstpost India reports, Vinay Rai, a journalist who initiated one of the lawsuits, claims that "freedom of speech does not mean you can show whatever you want... do not attack any religion. Insulting religion means instigating riots."

The lawsuit demands that internet companies screen content before it's posted, and a similar criminal case has accused Google, Facebook, and 19 other companies of violating Indian laws that prohibit works that "deprave or corrupt." Considering the inexhaustible supply of new content on the web, pre-screening requirements would be prohibitive to implement, and would likely amount to censorship.

"The issue relates to a constitutional issue of freedom of speech and expression", a Google India advocate said in court, "and suppressing it was not possible as the right to freedom of speech in democratic India separates us from a totalitarian regime like China," the Times reports.

The court will resume hearings for the case on January 19th, and while Google India and others argue that they're not responsible for "obscene, objectionable, and defamatory" content, it's clear that the web companies are caught in the middle of an ongoing cultural schism. We'll be sure to update you on the court's rulings as they are made.

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