India warns Twitter over ethnic violence rumours

India threatened to take action yesterday against Twitter over content alleged to have inflamed ethnic tensions, as leaked documents revealed the government scrambling to censor online material.

More than 309 orders have been issued demanding the removal of posts, images and links on websites including Facebook and Twitter as well as Australian news channel ABC, broadcaster Al-Jazeera and London’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The government has blamed Internet sites for spreading rumours that Muslims would attack students and workers who have migrated from the northeast to live in Bangalore and other southern cities.

Tens of thousands of people fled back to India’s remote northeast region last week, fearing an outbreak of violence.

The government has demanded that Twitter and other social network sites remove “inflammatory and harmful” material. It has also banned bulk text messages.

“If Twitter fails to respond to our request, we will take appropriate action,” senior home ministry official R.K. Singh said in the Times of India newspaper. “We have asked the information technology ministry to serve them a notice.”

The paper added that the government had set a deadline of Thursday for Twitter to respond.

The Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) research group published analysis of the blocking orders sent by the Department of Telecommunications to domestic Internet services providers from August 18-21.

The CIS said that of the 309 separate items that the government ordered the providers to be blocked, the most affected sites were Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Blogspot.

Content on websites for ABC, Al-Jazeera, The Times of India, The Daily Telegraph and online Catholic portal www.catholic.org were also targeted by the orders, though details of the contentious material are not known.

CIS said the volume of content blocked was impossible to calculate as the government lists contained a variety of individual webpages, image links and whole websites.

“There is a great deal of inconsistency in the way the government has gone about this,” Pranesh Prakash, the lead CIS researcher, told AFP. “Whatever the government’s intentions, it may have been over-sensitive.”

Twitter representatives were not available to comment, but both Facebook and Google this week said they were in communication with Indian authorities and already had policies banning content that incited violence.

The government has complained it was not receiving timely cooperation from social network groups over its attempts to ban “hateful” content.

On Thursday it said Twitter had agreed to remove six fake accounts pretending to be postings by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“Officials at Twitter have told us they are reviewing our request… and they intend to cooperate,” Pankaj Pachauri, the premier’s spokesman, told AFP.

“These accounts often feature mischievous, communalist (religious or ethnic) sentiments that can be misconstrued as coming from the prime minister himself.”

The Economic Times newspaper said the government had also asked 16 other Twitter accounts to be blocked, including those of right-wing leader Pravin Togadia and a couple of journalists.

“The Twitter accounts of two journalists, columnist Kanchan Gupta and television journalist Shiv Aroor, are among those that have been blocked,” the paper said, claiming access to government directives on blocking the handles.

The United States said Tuesday it was monitoring reports about migrants fleeing due to online rumours, but added that it was “always on the side of full freedom of the Internet”.

India was last year embroiled in another row over censorship when then Communications Minister Kapil Sibal held meetings with IT giants over obscene online images that risked offending Muslims or defamed politicians.

The threats of violence against migrants were linked to weeks of clashes in the northeastern state of Assam between the Bodo tribal community and Muslims that have claimed at least 80 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands.