NEW DELHI—India on Thursday broadened recent efforts to regulate the Internet with moves to block Twitter accounts of some prominent journalists and content from mainstream news organizations, sparking a backlash across social media in the country.
Since last week, the government has blocked content that it claims has fueled continuing communal violence in the northeast of the country. That fighting, between Muslim settlers and members of an indigenous group in the state of Assam, has left more than 80 people dead and sent ripples of tension across India.
The government confirms it has blocked around 250 Web pages it says were inciting Muslims to attack northeasterners, including sites carrying doctored photos purporting to show Muslim victims of fighting in Assam. Officials say these images on the sites, coupled with mass SMS phone messages threatening reprisals, have caused panicked northeasterners to flee their homes in a number of large Indian cities.
In recent days, though, the government has quietly widened its offensive, drawing up lists of journalists’ Twitter accounts and news stories by local and foreign media organizations to be blocked. The lists, some of which were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by two telecom operators, include Twitter handles of journalists who have been critical of the government and some who have parodied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The government didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The government’s actions caused an uproar on Twitter, where hashtags such as #GOIBlocks and #Emergency2012 were trending Thursday. “The Emergency” refers to a period in the 1970s when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cracked down on media freedoms and civil liberties.
“The government’s move to block several Twitter handles is a clear case of administrative overreach,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society. “This action means citizens are less likely to believe that the government can use its powers responsibly.”
Government officials said Internet curbs are necessary to maintain harmony in a multicultural nation of 1.2 billion people.
India Tightens Control of the Web
April 2011: Indian government frames rules that give Internet companies 36 hours to take down objectionable content or face potential criminal proceedings.
Dec. 6: Telecoms Minister Kapil Sibal says government is pushing for a framework to prevent content offensive to religious communities and other groups from appearing online.
Dec. 15: Journalist Vinay Rai files criminal complaint in Delhi court against Google, Facebook and several other companies for allegedly allowing objectionable content on their websites.
Jan. 13, 2012: Court case starts against Google, Facebook and others.
August: Indian government asks companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter Inc. to remove “inflammatory and hateful content” from their websites.
Pankaj Pachauri, a spokesman for Mr. Singh, acknowledged the government had asked for Twitter’s help to block six accounts that impersonate the prime minister. One of those accounts appeared on the government’s lists. Twitter, based in San Francisco, has agreed to review the requests, he said. A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment. Mr. Pachauri said earlier this week that Indian cyber authorities unilaterally blocked those six accounts.
Those six Twitter accounts faced government scrutiny because they made remarks that could have increased tensions, not because they poked fun at the prime minister, Mr. Pachauri said. “We’re all for media freedom and encourage criticism by the media,” he added. “But when it comes to inciting trouble between communities then we have to take firm action.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday that “we are always on the side of full freedom of the Internet.” She added that “we also always urge the government to maintain its own commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, rule of law.”
India’s Constitution allows restrictions on free speech for a number of reasons, including defense of “the sovereignty and integrity” of the country and in order to maintain “public order, decency or morality.” Critics say the government has used the vague framing of the Constitution to clamp down on a widening array of Internet material, threatening India’s democratic traditions.
Last year, the government framed new rules that require Internet companies to remove within 36 hours material that falls into a range of subjective categories—for instance, anything “ethnically objectionable,” “grossly harmful,” “defamatory” or “blasphemous.”
India’s telecoms minister, Kapil Sibal, in December urged Google Inc., GOOG -0.06% Facebook Inc. FB +0.01% and other Internet companies to screen derogatory material from their sites. The requests came amid anger over content that parodied Mr. Singh and Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party, as well as other leading politicians.
“One always wonders if the government is using the garb of hate speech and communalism to…limit political criticism online,” said Apar Gupta, a cyberlaw expert at Advani & Co., a Delhi-based law firm.
Google and Facebook executives are facing criminal charges in a New Delhi court for allegedly hosting objectionable material on their sites. If found guilty, the executives could face jail time or fines. The companies have petitioned to have the charges dropped, arguing that they shouldn’t be held liable for material posted by users. Both firms have said they will remove material that contravenes their own standards or local laws.
Google, Facebook and Twitter again came under fire from India this week amid violence in Assam. Google and Facebook said Tuesday that they were complying with Indian government requests to remove content. Twitter hasn’t commented.
Kanchan Gupta, a columnist who has been a fierce critic of the Congress party-led government, said his Twitter account had been temporarily blocked Wednesday night and Thursday. His name was on the government lists. “They thought they could do this slyly,” he said. “They didn’t anticipate the backlash on Twitter.”
Raghavan Jagannathan, editor in chief of FirstPost.com, an Indian news portal that was on the lists, said some of its stories had been blocked.
“We understand that the government wants to stop the circulation of incendiary material that may inflame passions, but should it be blocking news and opinions on the subject?” he said. “I am not sure the decisions are well-thought-out.”
Doha, Qatar-based Al Jazeera, an international cable-news organization, was also on the list. An Al Jazeera spokesman said the company was seeking a response from the government on reports of media restrictions affecting it and other outlets.
The government appeared unmoved. “Every company whether it’s a construction company or an entertainment company or a social media company, it has to operate within the laws of the given country,” Junior Minister for Communications Sachin Pilot told reporters on Wednesday.
A version of this article appeared August 23, 2012, on page A7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: New Delhi Expands Curbs on Web Content.