In India, the world’s largest democracy, civil rights are running up against the world of social media. On Monday police in Palghar, some 100 km north of Mumbai, arrested 21-year-old Shaheen Dhada for criticizing a traffic shutdown in a Facebook status update, the Mumbai Mirror reported. Another woman was arrested for merely “liking” that status update.
Both women expressed their discontent with Mumbai being shut down for the funeral of leading Hindu nationalist Bal Thackeray, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 86 — an event that brought India’s financial hub and most populous city to a virtual standstill. The two women questioned whether the bandh, or shutdown, was necessary.
Dhada quickly deleted the comment from her Facebook page and apologized for it. But that didn’t stop a mob of about 2,000 Thackeray supporters from ransacking her uncle’s orthopedic clinic in Palghar, according to the Mirror. Thackeray, founder of the extreme right-wing Shiv Sena party, has been widely criticized for inciting religious hatred and violence.
The arrests reflect the wider wariness with which Indian authorities look at social media, even at the cost of curbing freedom of expression.
This summer, rumors that circulated via social media stoked deadly riots in Assam, leaving more than 70 people dead and prompting a mass exodus of tens of thousands of northeast Indians from Bangalore. In August, Facebook and the Indian government pledged to delete posts containing hate speech. But a list of blogs, Facebook pages, and YouTube and Twitter profiles that authorities tried to block was leaked online, sparking a debate over censorship and Internet governance.
So far, the debate has been fruitless. In October, a businessman was arrested for tweeting “offensive” comments about the son of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, the Times of India reported. Also last month, three Hindus in Muslim-majority Kashmir were arrested after they posted anti-Muslim messages on Facebook.
Only 125 million of India’s 1.2 billion residents were using the Internet last year, but that number is growing fast, almost tripling over the past five years. But authorities are catching up to online miscreants: Google says that in the first half of 2012, Indian authorities submitted 2,310 data requests — demands from courts or government officials to hand over information about Google’s users — up 33% from the same period a year earlier and second only to the U.S.
India also ranks third in the number of Facebook users after the U.S. and Brazil, according to SocialBakers. Over the past six months, the number of Indians on Facebook increased by more than 30% t0 60.6 million. By 2015, India will have more Facebook users than any other country, making arresting everyone who likes a status update increasingly impractical.
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