Google India, which along with 20 websites is facing criminal case for allegedly hosting objectionable materials, on Monday told the Delhi High Court that blocking them was not an option as democratic India does not have a "totalitarian" regime like China.
"The issue relates to a constitutional issue of freedom of speech and expression and suppressing it was not possible as the right to freedom of speech in democratic India separates us from a totalitarian regime like China," advocate N K Kaul, appearing for Google India, told Justice Suresh Kait.
During the last hearing, Justice Kait had warned Google India and social networking site Facebook India that websites can be "blocked" like in China if they fail to devise a mechanism to check and remove objectionable material from their web pages. Responding to the court's remark, Kaul referred to media reports on the issue saying "they (reports) suggest the existence of the right (freedom of speech)."
Initiating arguments, Kaul said internet is a global system which have billions of users that also included companies, private persons and the governments and their departments.
He filed a representation in the court and said an online search for a word like "virgin" has 82.30 crore search results within 0.33 seconds and the idea of blocking a word like this would deprive net-users the required information.
"The queries could relate to Virgin Airlines or for that matter 'virgin areas for inventions', he said. Seeking quashing of the summons issued against the firm by a lower court, he said Google India is neither a search engine nor a web hosting site and was a distinct legal entity from its US-based holding company Google Inc, a search engine. "No criminal liability can be fastened on Google India," he said.
“Today’s case is probably the first chapter in a long- running battle between service providers and the government,” said Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court lawyer who specialises in Internet laws. “We are likely to see more prosecutions and challenges until the law is clearly settled.”
Vinay Rai, who edits an Urdu-language newspaper, asked the lower court to prosecute 21 companies, saying some material on their websites has the potential to incite religious conflict. The Delhi High Court will next hear the challenge on January 19.
India’s Information Technology Act of 2008 gives Communications and Information Technology minister Kapil Sibal the authority to order portals to block sites and requires companies to designate a point of contact for receiving those government requests. Sibal told reporters on December 6, waving examples of content that he said was unacceptable, that the government will come up with stricter rules. He denied any intention to censor free speech.
Points of view
On December 7, Google, the owner of the world’s most popular search engine, said it will “continue to remove” content in India that is illegal or breaks the company’s terms of service. Services such as YouTube and the social-networking site Google+ “help users to express themselves and share different points of view,” it said in a statement. A day later, the Mountain View, California-based company said it received a tax demand from Indian authorities. Google India filed a petition before the court and can’t comment further, spokeswoman Paroma Chowdhury said in an e- mailed statement. Kumiko Hidaka, a spokeswoman for Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, didn’t respond to an e-mail.
Google India isn’t responsible for offensive items posted by third parties, said
N K Kaul, a lawyer for Google in court on Monday. Disputes between the government and websites flared in April when the department of information technology changed rules that allowed government officials and citizens to demand that sites remove offensive content.
Failure to comply with the orders within 36 hours can result in fines and imprisonment for as long as seven years.
In the preliminary hearing last week the lower court warned that India may follow China’s example of blocking websites if they fail to comply with the government’s requests, according to comments published in the Indian Express.
The lawsuit illustrates the challenges facing websites as they seek to expand in India where the number of Internet users is expected to triple to 237 million by 2015, Boston Consulting Group estimates.
India had about 89 million people using the Web at the end of last year, compared with more than 450 million in China, the world’s largest Internet market, according to the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva.
Facebook’s number of active accounts in India jumped 33 per cent to 41.4 million in the last six months, according to socialbakers.com, which tracks user data. That’s the third- highest in the world behind 157 million in the US and 41.8 million in Indonesia.
The company opened an office in the southern city of Hyderabad last year.
Facebook is blocked in China, which also bans pornography, gambling and content critical of the ruling Communist Party.
South Korea is also stepping up scrutiny of online media. The Korea Communications Standards Commission set up a team to monitor and censor social-networking sites, mobile applications and online ads, according to a December 1 statement from the regulator.