Facebook Censors Internet to Prevent Violence

Dennis Faas's picture

Freedom of speech online is once again the topic of heated debate, this time in India. That country's government has now urged major sites like Facebook to remove threatening material that may have provoked a mass exodus from some regions.

The issue stems from religious disputes in Assam, a region in the northeast of India where long-time residents have clashed with immigrants from nearby Bangladesh, leading to dozens of deaths.

In the past week, angry residents of Assam have used the Internet to threaten the immigrants with violence. The threats have reportedly caused "tens of thousands" of people to flee their homes. (Source: foxbusiness.com)

It's unclear if people will actually carry out these threats. Some observers suggest the threatening messages originated in Pakistan, and may be simply a ruse intended to further inflame the local situation and destabilize the region.

The rumors of mass exodus were accompanied by images and videos that are known to be faked. The situation has also been enflamed by threats posted on bogus Twitter accounts supposedly owned by Indian officials.

Indian Government Blocks Websites

India is taking a two-step approach to remedy the problem.

First, it is blocking all access to the 245 web pages carrying images meant to incite further violence. According to Indian officials, there "is no question of anything being censored here. But that does not mean there are not limitations [to free speech]."

Second, the government has requested that several social media websites delete offending messages. Facebook says it is willing to do so and has already begun a clean-up operation.

Facebook also noted that it retains the right to delete the accounts of users who post material that could further aggravate the already tense situation. Facebook requested that users who see such material report it to site administrators.

Twitter Response Disappoints Officials

Indian officials say they've been disappointed with Twitter's hesitation to block accounts, as Facebook has done. However, officials acknowledge Twitter's slow response may be affected by the company not having an office in India.

In the meantime, the Indian government has manually blocked access to some Twitter accounts. But because the site allows users to "retweet" other people's messages, this blockage has only a limited effect. (Source: huffingtonpost.com)

Despite the severity of the situation, some online rights groups say they're concerned about the efforts of Indian officials to censor the Internet. They say the government could use the Assam episode as an excuse to block access to anti-government material.

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