India is home to the world's largest democracy. But the country is still conservative by Western standards. So when a government minister said recently that offensive material on the Web should be removed, it wasn't that surprising. But when he went beyond that, controversy erupted. Elliot Hannon reports from New Delhi.

ELLIOT HANNON, BYLINE: The way it was reported here, Communications Minister Kapil Sibal started the whole row by assembling the heads of social networking sites at a meeting in his office in New Delhi. At the time he was reported to have asked companies like Google and Facebook to devise a system to filter through and edit out objectionable material before it could make its way online. In an interview with the Indian cable channel CNN-IBN, Sibal pointed to offensive religious content that could cause ethnic or inter-communal conflict.

KAPIL SIBAL: We will defend any citizen's right to freedom of speech till our last breath. But we don't want this kind of content to be on the social media.

HANNON: India's civil society, and more particularly its very active blogosphere, were outraged. Pranesh Prakash from the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore says even the suggestion of censorship is a dangerous idea, particularly if it's done before the content is posted online.

PRANESH PRAKASH: Pre-censorhip is a very dangerous idea and is also something that actually doesn't happen in countries that are known for censoring the Internet. It'll be charting a new path in Internet censorship.

HANNON: Prakash says the proposal would be impractical, as well as undemocratic. Even with an army of censors, it would impossible to filter through content before it's uploaded, he says. Stung by the criticism, Kapil Sibal now says he was misunderstood.

SIBAL: There can be no prescreening of content on the electronic media and on the social media. It would be madness to ask for it, and I don't think any sane person would.

HANNON: But in that fateful meeting, the Communications Minister also reportedly objected to unflattering portrayals of India's political leaders on the Internet and in Twitter messages. And that idea reinforced concerns that the government was overreaching and muffling dissent. Censoring hate speech is one thing, but leaving it to the likes of Google to monitor political speech is problematic, says Apar Gupta, an Internet lawyer in New Delhi.

APAR GUPTA: It may offend you today. OK. It may not cater to your taste, but at the end of the day - is it legal? The new proposals in a sense are quite a dramatic change, not only in terms of an enforcement mechanism, but also in terms of the kind of speech it will prohibit.

HANNON: Up until now there has been some legal room for the government to censor inflammatory speech. For example, movies in India are subjected to a government censor board that monitors their content before they can be released to the general public. This year a controversial movie about India's social caste system was banned in some parts of the country. But the Internet is less restrictive, says Apar Gupta.

GUPTA: You can voice your opinion without any social sanctions for your opinions. So it's been a pressure valve which has allowed a lot of people to let off steam.

HANNON: But even so, when debate online boils over in India, it's the website or search engine that's held responsible. So critics of the proposed restrictions don't see the need for further action. All of this has left Communications Minister Kapil Sibal as something of a hate figure among Internet-savvy Indians. Although he says he's going to pressing for tighter controls, he has agreed to meet with the Internet companies again.

For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon in New Delhi.

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