Facebook, Google in India's crosshairs over Web censorship

The companies, now on trial in India, potentially could be fined and see executives jailed over not censoring certain content.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
2 min read

In India, Web censorship is a huge concern. Google and Facebook are learning that the hard way.

The companies, as of today, are on trial in India over claims that they didn't censor content posted on their respective Web sites. According to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the case, Indian journalist Vinay Rai brought a criminal complaint against the Web giants, along with 10 other firms, alleging that their lack of censorship "will corrupt minds."

Censorship demands have long presented legal issues for Google and Facebook. Many countries have requested that the companies censor content to comply with local law. China has arguably been the most forceful in its call for censorship, going as far as blocking certain sites within its borders. A couple years ago, China forced Google to censor Web results. Soon after doing so, Google changed its mind and moved its Chinese search operations to Hong Kong.

So far, India hasn't gone as far as blocking Web sites, but the country has made it clear that it wants all "objectionable" content to kept away from its citizens. According to the Journal, Google and Facebook have said in India that they would block certain content, but only if they're notified of an infringement. The companies' core defense centers on India's information technology law, which they claim protects them against content added to sites by users.

A battle between the online giants and India seemed to be brewing in December when the government demanded that all Web companies prescreen user content before it hits the Internet. India's acting telecommunications minister, Kapil Sibal, said at the time that the move would limit the disparaging or inflammatory content that has found its way onto the Internet.

In a previous meeting with lawyers from several online firms and Internet service providers last year, Sibal showed them a Facebook page that included critical remarks about India's Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, according to a New York Times report. Sibal said he would want that kind of content erased before it had a chance to make it online.

The stakes are high for both Facebook and Google. According to lawyers with whom the Journal spoke, Facebook and Google could face fines, if found guilty of violating India's online censorship laws, and its executives could face jail time.

Neither Facebook nor Google immediately responded to CNET's request for comment.