A court in Delhi on Saturday ordered 22 Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, to remove certain "anti-religious" and "anti-social" content, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
India has been concerned recently about online content that it considers objectionable, with the country's Minister for Communications and IT, Kapil Sibal, calling on Internet companies to develop a framework to ensure that such content does not appear online. The government's critics however hold that it wants to censor online content critical of India's politicians.
The companies have until February 6 to report compliance to the court, detailing what action they have taken to remove the objectionable and derogatory content from the websites, PTI said. The judge was acting on a private complaint.
Sibal was at the center of a controversy earlier this month after newspaper reports said that he had asked Internet companies to pre-filter objectionable content before it was posted online. Executives of two Internet companies confirmed, on condition of anonymity, that Sibal had indeed made the demand.
The minister however subsequently denied in television interviews that he had asked for pre-filtering of content, which he said would have been a "foolish" proposal. Sibal said he was talking to Internet companies to push for a mechanism to remove offensive content after it is posted. Some of the Internet companies were allowing content that would fail to live up to the laws that they are enforcing in their own country by their own community standards, he told one TV channel.
India's Information Technology Act requires intermediaries like Internet service providers to remove content that is found objectionable within a period of 36 hours of being notified of the content. Intermediaries are also required to warn users against posting or uploading a variety of objectionable content in their user agreements and other rules and regulations.
Very often demands by the government for removal of content have gone unheeded by the Internet companies, and the companies have also declined to provide information on who has posted the content, Sibal said.
While private persons have the option to approach courts to get content they consider objectionable removed under various Indian laws, some of them have complained that the court process ensures that the objectionable content often continues online during the duration of the case. Some Internet companies also pass the blame to their parent companies in the U.S., saying that they run the websites.
The order of the Delhi court on Saturday however requires the Internet companies to remove the content considered objectionable until disposal of the suit, Santosh Pandey, the lawyer for the prosecution, told a local TV channel in Delhi.
"We comply with valid court orders wherever possible, consistent with our long standing policy," Google said in an emailed statement on Saturday. "We're yet to receive the details of this order and can't comment on this specific case." Other Internet companies were not available immediately for comment on the Delhi court order.