Facebook has disclosed that it restricted as many as 4,960 items of content on the social networking site in India in compliance with official requests in the first half of 2014. The significance of the figure does not lie in the mere fact that it is the largest number of restrictions from a single country during this period, or in the detail that India ranks second only to the U.S. in the number of requests for access to user data. The real and disturbing significance lies in Facebook’s disclosure that these requests, primarily from law enforcement officials and the country’s Computer Emergency Response Team, were made ‘under local laws prohibiting criticism of a religion or the state’.

The number of requests for access to users jumped from 3,598 (covering 4,711 users/accounts) in the previous six-month period to 4,559 (covering 5,958 users/accounts) in the first six months of 2014. Half of the requests were complied with. It is possible to argue in legal terms that the government may seek such access to user data or request blocking of content in exceptional circumstances. Article 19(2) of the Constitution permits reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, among other grounds such as, ‘in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence’.

Normally one would expect that any restriction on free expression in cyberspace would be aimed at curbing potentially explosive remarks that are likely to foment violence. It is indeed a bitter reality that social media have sometimes been used to spread rumours — the ones that sparked an exodus from Bengaluru of residents hailing from the northeastern states in 2012, being one example. However, the moot question is whether it will be reasonable to use the principle to bar all criticism of the state or religion.

It cannot be forgotten that a book by the Indologist Wendy Doniger was withdrawn and pulped because the publisher was threatened with prosecution under Section 295-A of the IPC, which makes ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings’ a punishable offence. Recently, a political activist was arrested for an innocuous comment that implied that divine retribution was behind a cyclone that hit Visakhapatnam.

If the government is making thousands of requests either for user data or blocking content, it should be transparent about the real nature of its requests. Only then will it be possible for citizens to know if these fall squarely within the constitutionally recognised reasonable restrictions, or if they amount to a misuse of archaic laws.

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