Hate speech must be blocked, says Sibal

Union Minister for Communication and Information Technology Kapil Sibal addresses a press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo: S. Subramanium   | Photo Credit: S_Subramanium

Kapil Sibal, the Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology, has defended his demand that global internet companies block some content from sites they operate, saying he had been left with no choice after the companies refused to delete incendiary hate-speech published on their social-networking websites.

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Mr. Sibal said Facebook, Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft had to be summoned to a Monday afternoon meeting that has generated growing political controversy, because they stonewalled repeated requests to block incendiary communal material being posted on social networking sites they operated.

“People have been asking why we can't just prosecute individuals who post hate-speech instead of blocking sites,” Mr. Sibal said, “but there are three reasons why that's not workable. First, many of the individuals posting inflammatory material online are overseas, out of the reach of our laws. Second, the Internet companies have rejected our requests for information on the individuals, citing laws in the countries where the servers are located.” Finally, “each time material of this kind becomes the subject of legal proceedings in open court, you will have protests, mobs, perhaps violence — even if the media is responsible, and doesn't report the details.”

“It gives me no pleasure,” Mr. Sibal explained, “to restrict social media, but the fact is there's a problem. These companies are in essence saying that they publish content in accordance with standards in the west. That's not good enough. I will, however, call all stakeholders to the table, and evolve agreed standards for what kinds of content are acceptable, before a final decision.”

Omar backs Sibal

Mr. Sibal's position has won support from at least one unlikely quarter —Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, himself an avid Internet user who uses social media to communicate with the public — and told authorities not to crack down on internet sites when offensive photographs and text about his personal life and family were posted online in 2010.

“I've had to deal with stone-throwing mobs on the streets because of some moron in the United States,” he told The Hindu. “Each time, people could have got killed. For me, this isn't an airy-fairy ideological issue, it's a real problem.”

Indian and overseas newspapers have reported the meeting was called after Mr. Sibal was made aware of web pages with offensive content about Congress president Sonia Gandhi — but government sources said they had in fact confronted companies with a range of incendiary communal material.

Earlier this year, the government circulated rules which made it incumbent on internet intermediaries — like Facebook and Yahoo — to exercise due diligence to block material deemed, “threatening, abusive, harassing, blasphemous, objectionable, defamatory, … or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.”

Free speech advocates had assailed the rules, saying they were too broadly framed, and would open the way for large-scale government restrictions on free speech. Salil Tripathi, a trustee of the writers' free speech body PEN, said he was concerned that Mr. Sibal's proposals would lead to wider restrictions on literature and the arts. “In some people's view,” he said, “the work of the great artist MF Husain is pornographic and inflammatory, and want it banned. Part of living in a democracy is that you have to accept chaff with the wheat.”

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 7:03:41 AM |

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