With 1.2 billion people, India is the world’s largest democracy and a potentially vast population of internet users. But for Google, with its hugely popular Orkut social networking site, it’s become a minefield of subtle censorship issues. The Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Vascellaro explains how in India, Google is attempting to strike a free-speech balance.
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BOB GARFIELD: India, the world’s largest democracy, has become an interesting testing ground for how to find a middle path between China-like censorship and full freedom of speech online. And leading the way in striking this balance is Google, not simply as a search engine but also because it runs India’s third most visited website, a social networking service similar to Facebook and MySpace known as Orkut. The user-generated content on the site has caught the eye of India law enforcement, which wants Google to take down anything that might inflame ethnic or religious tensions, and the modern history of India proves that these concerns are by no means paranoiac. Jessica Vascellaro co-wrote about Google’s predicament recently in The Wall Street Journal, and she joins me now. Jessica, welcome to the show.
JESSICA VASCELLARO: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Google is listening to police and government agencies but they say they're paying more attention to users themselves and what they flag as objectionable.
JESSICA VASCELLARO: Correct. So Google won't just review the content on Orkut in India and decide to block it preemptively. The process from their end is that they review content once it’s been flagged by their users. And particularly for Google - this is a new country and a new market for them, with lots of complexity - they do rely on the users as a sort of a barometer. And then they review content brought to their attention by law enforcement.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me an example of the kind of content that is so provocative or hateful or malicious that the government intervenes to demand that Google take it down?
JESSICA VASCELLARO: There were some very offensive comments about a chief minister in India who had died in a plane crash, taunting him and making fun of him. That was content that had been removed. Some other content that has come down or been inaccessible inside India is related to the Shiv Sena group. They're a nationalist political party within India, and there’s been a lot of content, both in favor of them and against them, that’s been removed. Other examples include political figures. There were several user groups on Orkut that had some pretty harsh rhetoric against Sonia Gandhi. She had an X through her photo. They described her as “Lady Hitler.”
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is all material that in our democracy would be deemed just part of the fray, the free exchange of ideas, sometimes repugnant, sometimes obnoxious but not subject to certainly government censorship. When a government agency, especially the police, does prevail upon Google to remove content, are there Indian civil libertarians who get into an uproar?
JESSICA VASCELLARO: There are. People get very concerned when an Internet company is taking down content, they're making it inaccessible. But Google has always said in all these countries that it is going to abide by the local rules where it operates. And Google and the lawyers we spoke to there do appreciate the sensitivity that while India protects free speech there are riots, there are bus bombings, and lawmakers there are very leery of content that “inflames communal passions,” is the language they use. And so, that’s the balance Google is trying to strike. And there are folks who use this to criticize them, but on the other side there are folks who sort of applaud Google for pushing back where it does and at least sort of being open that it is working within these frameworks and not pretending that it’s business as usual.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any sense as to whether they are reluctant participants in this, or when the police ask them to jump do they ask, how high?
JESSICA VASCELLARO: First off, there’s what their executives in India have told us and their executives here, who say they push back on dozens of requests a day, and we're taking their word for that. But I think that Google knows that the last thing it wants is to be associated with censorship, because if they don't push back and if they get a reputation, people aren't going to trust them and aren't going to use their services. Google’s in-house lawyer in India told us that one thing she’s been doing in talking to law enforcement is pointing out examples of potentially controversial speech in other types of media and trying to use that as an argument for why some of these things should be acceptable online as well.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jessica. Thank you for joining us.
JESSICA VASCELLARO: Thanks very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Jessica Vascellaro covers digital technology from the San Francisco Bureau of The Wall Street Journal.