Should Governments Censor Social Networks to Prevent Religious Clashes?

We may not hear a lot about it here in the West, but India is currently undergoing their social renaissance.  Services like Facebook, Google Plus and Orkut are huge over there, and continue to grow at staggering rates.  One look at this “Who’s Using Google Plus” infographic and you’ll see that Indians are prominent users of G+.

But the thing is, this influx of social networking is like a megaphone for hundreds of millions of people in the country, who never had the ability to speak out in such a public way before.  And this is why Indian politicians are currently undergoing the growth pains of having a social tech-savvy populace, and their response so far has been to ask service providers to delete harmful communities.

However, closer inspection reveals that this is no act for the people — the government is simply shutting down any groups that they feel are “offensive to politicans,” as reported by the Times of India.  See the quote below.

To cap it, a single agency even asked Google to remove 236 communities and profiles from social networking site Orkut as they were “critical of a local politician.” The extent of post screening can be gauged by a simple fact – Google was asked for “user data request” of 2,439 users in only the six months from January to June, this year. This is nearly a 1,000 more than those asked in the preceding six months.

The entire thing kicked off this Monday when Telecoms and  Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal met with representatives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook to explain that the Indian government wanted them to remove the specific groups.  No agreement was reached yet, and it seems that, as Google did with China, the companies will resist any desire to censor anything.

Now, the current list of requests is not all about politicians.  Kapil also presented a series of images that were offensive to religious minorities, and asked those be taken down as well.  He’s quoted below:

“We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people, we have to protect their sensibilities. Our cultural ethos is very important to us,” Sibal said Tuesday, after showing reporters some images he said were taken from the Internet and would likely offend religious communities.”

So the question is whether the companies will buckle, and also whether this is the tip of the iceberg.  It’s easy to look over at India from the West and dismiss censorship of any form, but in a country of 1.2 Billion people, of which many are uneducated, it’s the government’s responsibility to also ensure that they keep an eye on the state of these tools and determine if there’s any risk.  It’s certainly a fine line, but because of the variety of religion in the country, from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and several others, it makes sense that the government would get involved.

Do you think governments should be able to censor social networks?  It looks like Indians aren’t taking well to Kapil’s move, and Facebook and Twitter have been flooded with criticism for his move.

Image: arindambanerjee /