The Indian authorities have sparked outcry by demanding internet companies such as Google and Facebook pre-screen material on their websites and remove anything Indians might consider offensive.
The country's Telecommunications Minister, Kapil Sibal, confirmed yesterday that the Government was preparing a plan for controlling such material, after the large internet firms he had approached had failed to come up with a proposal for self-regulation.
"This is a matter of great concern to us. We have to take care of the sensibility of our people," he told a press conference. "We are seeking their co-operation, and if somebody is not willing to co-operate on incendiary material like this, it is the duty of Government to think of steps that we need to take.
"We don't want to interfere in freedom of the press, but this kind of material should not be allowed."
Officials claimed Sibal was in particular trying to prevent the spread of material that was offensive to various religious or ethnic communities. Yesterday, before the press conference in New Delhi, he shared details of a website that showed pigs running through the city of Mecca - images that would be deeply offensive to Muslims.
But he also referred to material that purportedly showed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress Party, in compromising positions. Other reports suggested that he had expressed particular concern during his meetings with internet firms in recent months over offensive material relating to Gandhi.
"I believe that no reasonable person aware of ... community standards as they are applicable in India, would wish to see this content in the public domain," Sibal said.
The announcement sparked instant controversy, especially on the internet, with people accusing the Government of threatening to limit free speech.
Many questioned whether the move would be technically possible. India has around 100 million internet users, and is placed fourth behind China, the United States and Japan in global rankings. The number of users is growing all the time.
"The statement ... is a blow to Indian democracy. I feel such a policy will only lead to a curtailing of basic freedom of expression," said Aditya Raj Kaul, an online activist and journalist. "As a journalist, I fear the days of [a State of Emergency] are not far away if such measures are forced in our system."
Facebook said it would remove material that was "hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity". Its statement added: "We recognise the Government's interest in minimising the amount of abusive content that is available online and will continue to engage with the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue."
This is not the first time that the authorities in New Delhi have clashed with information technology companies. Last year, the Government threatened to ban the use of BlackBerry devices amid concerns over access to encrypted information.
- IndependentBy Andrew Buncombe