30 People in India are Dead and the Internet is to Blame

Law enforcement agencies failed to censor and stop the spread of a video that set fire to India’s deep religious conflict — the fight between the Hindus and Muslims. This incident isn’t an isolated one. India must find better ways to police the web without infringing on peoples' right to free speech. 

As elections approach, Indian political parties continue to blame each other for the death of 30 people who were killed because of religious riots. 

But the blame, it seems, should go to the internet.

The Indian police say a five-minute video clip that circulated widely on the internet caused the explosion of violence in Uttar Pradesh. The clip, which was false, shows the killing of two Hindu boys. The clip was filmed years ago in Afghanistan or Pakistan, according to the Indian police.


What is frightening about this spate of violence is that it was caused by a fake video easily downloadable and sharable on smartphones.

Data from the World Bank shows that internet use grew worldwide from 29.4% in 2010 to 32.7% in 2011. In India alone, internet use from 2011 to 2012 grew from 10.1 to 12.6%. That is 2.6% of the population — more than 31 million people. 

Another study by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialized agency of the UN shows that "in developing countries, the number of mobile-broadband subscriptions more than doubled from 2011 to 2013 (from 472 million to 1.16 billion) and surpassed those in developed countries in 2013." India is already the world’s largest internet user after the U.S. and China. 

As internet penetration and cell phone use grows in India and other developing nations, it is worth asking: Is stronger censorship necessary on the web? Could India have prevented the death of 30 people if it had better monitoring practices?

However, censorship is very complex, and the line between protection and authoritarianism is easily blurred. China, for example, threatened tough punishment for spreading online rumors earlier this week. The article cites that people felt robbed of their freedom of speech.

"This interpretation is against the constitution and is robbing people of their freedom of speech," wrote a blogger, according to the Reuters article.

India already has a minimal amount of censorship. Freedom House, an independent watchdog against threat to democracy, says that internet is "partly free" in India, and there is more censorship in the country than in North America. The status has remained unchanged since 2009.

Yet, it isn’t difficult to access blocked websites through proxy servers. The co-founder of the Indian Mujahideen, Yasin Bhatkal, recently admitted that the Mujahideen had used proxy servers to send terror emails. The Indian Mujahideen is responsible for the serial terror bombings in Delhi on September 13, 2008 when 26 were killed and 133 injured. 

The internet also played a role in the Mumbai attacks in 2008 that shook the nation. At least 174 people were killed and more than 300 wounded in the Mumbai attacks, where attackers used sophisticated technology such as Google Earth and smartphones to carry out the attacks.

The 2008 attacks propelled government action. Internet security came under the radar for the first time. Pressure to remove any material on the web considered harmful to the public surmounted. 

In 2009, the Indian Supreme Court ruled bloggers and moderators can face libel suits for comments posted by other users. In April 2011, the government instituted Information Technology guidelines  which require intermediaries, including search engines and social networking sites, to remove content within 36 hours if an individual finds something offensive.

Then, the question is, why didn’t Indian authorities see the massive danger of a fake video?

Perhaps, the right question to ask is: Has India’s internet censorship caught up with increasing internet use in the country? How can a country of 1.2 billion people continue to monitor the internet without infringing on people’s' freedom? 

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Shiwani Neupane

Digital Media Associate at the Columbia Journalism School. Previously, on-air reporter and freelancer in Kathmandu, Nepal. Author of fiction: Monica, Pieces of Perfect. Interested in everything South Asia, and the future of news media.

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