Indian Courts Order Facebook, Google to Remove 'Religiously Offensive' Material

Critics Say Government Is Attempting to Censor the Internet Under Guise of Religious Sensitivity

Nineteen U.S. companies, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo, have been ordered by two Indian courts to remove materials considered religiously offensive and obscene, which has sparked accusations that the government is attempting to censor the Internet in the country.

One court in Delhi issued summons to the tech companies to stand trial for offences relating to distributing obscene material to minors, after it was shown images deemed offensive to Hindus, Muslims and Christians, reported Reuters. Another Delhi court earlier reportedly ordered the companies to remove photographs, videos or text which might hurt people's religious sentiments.

The websites were given until Feb. 6 to remove the "anti-religious" content, according to other sources.

"The accused in connivance with each other and other unknown persons are selling, publicly exhibiting and have put into circulation obscene, lascivious content," government representative said in court, as quoted by Reuters.

In response, a Google spokesman reportedly told the agency: "We believe that access to information is the foundation of a free society."

"Where content is illegal or breaks our terms of service we will continue to remove it," he added.

The legal battle comes in the context of what some critics see as increasing government attempts to censor the Web. The order will raise serious questions about how users' posts and opinions will be edited, sources say.

In early December, India's telecoms minister Kapil Sibal reportedly urged Facebook, Twitter, Google and other online giants to remove offensive material from their publicly accessible websites, unleashing a storm of criticism. The government also asked the companies and social media sites  to pre-screen their content from India before it goes online, The New York Times reported.

In March 2011, the government was accused of allegedly banning access to several blogging websites, like Typepad, Mobango, and Clickatell.

India has 100 million internet users, which makes it the third-largest user base behind China and the United States. It also continues to be one of the fastest growing major telecom markets in the world, with an estimated 750 million mobile users at the end of 2010.

But the country's telecoms industry reportedly suffers from corruption. The industry is currently in the midst of one of the biggest fraud scandals in the nation's history.

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