Nod to prosecute websites
|OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT AND PTI|
New Delhi, Jan. 13: Facebook, Google and 20 other social networking sites face legal action after the Centre today sanctioned their prosecution for promoting enmity between classes and causing prejudice to national integration.
The government itself brought the further charge of outraging religious beliefs against the sites after asking them for months to screen “objectionable” content.
A Delhi magistrate’s court, hearing petitions from individuals, had on December 23 found the accused companies prima facie liable. However, in cases of promoting enmity between classes, prosecuting agencies need government sanction.
The Centre gave it today, telling the court it had sufficient material to prove the charges. The court then directed the foreign ministry to serve its summons on 10 administrators of these sites based abroad.
“Let the process (of serving summons) to accused be sent through the MEA (ministry of external affairs) as per the process,” metropolitan magistrate Sudesh Kumar said.
He then listed the matter for further hearing on March 13 and directed the accused based abroad to appear in person on that date.
Foreign ministry sources said Indian missions and consuls-general abroad, particularly in the US where most of these websites are headquartered, would serve the summons as directed by the court.
On December 23, the court had issued summons to these websites on criminal conspiracy and obscenity charges, but they were served on the companies’ Indian subsidiaries.
These subsidiaries had then moved Delhi High Court for a stay on the lower court’s hearings, arguing they were not liable for actions of their holding companies based abroad.
But Justice Suresh Kait refused a stay yesterday, warning that “like China, we (India) will block all such websites” if they failed to screen and remove objectionable material.
The Centre’s two-page report to the magistrate, prepared by the information technology department, said: “The sanctioning authority (Centre)... is satisfied that there is sufficient material to proceed against the accused persons under Sections 153A, 153B and 295A of the IPC (Indian Penal Code).”
Of these sections, the first deals with promoting enmity between groups, the second with assertions prejudicial to national integration, and the third with deliberate or malicious acts intended to outrage the religious beliefs of any class. They carry jail terms of up to three years.
The Centre said it had gone through documents provided by the station house officer of New Delhi’s Tughlak Road police station and was satisfied that some of the websites’ content violated the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules 2011.
On December 20, another court had, in a civil case, restrained some sites ---- including Facebook, Google and YouTube ---- from webcasting any “anti-religious” or “anti-social” content that promoted hatred or communal disharmony.
The Centre had directed the IT department to monitor social networking sites after several MPs complained they were being maligned on these sites in the wake of Anna Hazare’s movement. India’s Computer Emergency Response Team (Cert-In) has been doing so for several months now. Eleven Indian websites have already been blocked by a government order.
Officials, however, say it is difficult to monitor content and that much of the evidence has come from complaints filed by individuals. They add that there are many legal challenges to monitoring these websites or to acting against them.
Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Orkut and Google+ are popular in India. Facebook has nearly 3.1 crore users, Orkut has 1.8 crore while Google+ has around 2 crore.