Free Speech Implications of Blocking Blog Posts in India

India is the world’s largest democracy, but the country’s claim to the title is being questioned after the Indian government implemented regulations restricting web content, specifically blog posts, in cases of “questionable content.” The new rules, which came from India’s Department of Information Technology, is sparking the ire of netizens and human rights advocates alike, with both slamming the move as a free speech violation.

India’s Free Speech-Unfriendly Blog Laws

In the new guidelines, anyone — private citizen or political party — can request that the government ban particular websites when they contain what is perceived as objectionable material. The criteria for objectionable content include, but are not limited to: threats to the sovereign integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, and public order. Any website or blog also found to incite readers to the commission of cognisable offenses are also to be curtailed.

Sweeping Law Language Leads to Free Speech Infringement Fears

In theory, the move seems justified, but actual practice unearths many of its problems. For starters, what can be classified as objectionable content is broad and sweeping — a loophole that anyone with an agenda can use. Indeed, the new rules have been used to either censor or prohibit topics that most would argue as necessary for a healthy discussion, such as anti-government sentiments, sexually-related content, gambling-related content, and religious beliefs. The move also severely limits bloggers’ ability to post unpopular opinions, or to jumpstart a good debate.

Worse, web content is often taken down without any explanation, which leaves writers wondering what they could have done to offend readers. This also leaves site owners with no recourse to defend themselves, or gain third party adjudication for their case. Social networking sites like Facebook or Youtube, for example, must take down what Indian law has declared unfit for web surfers within 36 hours — and the web content owner can’t appeal.

India’s Need For Internet Information

There is, of course a bigger picture at stake: the role of the Internet as an open information source. With many in rural India hesitant to purchase a television, books or newspapers, the internet remains invaluable, free source information. It also prevents like-minded individuals from meeting online and establishing a network, which is an important component of freedom of assembly. Some bloggers even report that the move has stopped them from accessing a site designed to help survivors of a train bombing in Mumbai.

There is a fear among Indian bloggers that censorship on the Net will also be abused by authorities in the same way it has abused censorship of print and broadcast media in past years. For instance, a biography of Mohandas Ghandi was harshly criticized because the book talked about Ghandi’s relationship with another man. Sedition charges were also filed against writer Arundhati Roy and protester Binayak Sen for voicing their opinions on civil liberties. Indian bloggers can only hope that the trend can be broken.