* Hearing on offensive Web before Delhi High Court
* Less than 10 percent of population has Internet access
By Frank Jack Daniel and Arup Roychoudhury
NEW DELHI, Jan 13 The Indian government
on Friday threw its weight behind a case against internet giants
including Google and Facebook, who are embroiled in a battle
over offensive content after a judge warned websites may be
blocked "like in China".
The case, which has stoked worries about freedom of speech
in the world's largest democracy, was brought by a private
petitioner seeking to remove images considered offensive to
Hindus, Muslims and Christians from websites.
The government on Friday officially sanctioned prosecuting
21 companies including Google and Facebook.
"The government of India...finds it appropriate to grant
sanction...to proceed against the accused persons in the
aforesaid complaint in national harmony, integration and
national interest," a court document seen by Reuters said.
The next hearing was set for March and senior executives
could be summoned, local media said.
Separately, the Delhi High Court is due to resume a hearing
on Monday of an appeal against the case, which was originally
brought in a lower court.
"The lower court gave a ruling asking the companies to take
down some content, we appealed that ruling and it is in the
higher court," said a Google spokesman in India on Friday.
The India units of Facebook, Yahoo! Inc and
Microsoft Corp declined to comment.
"If a contraband is found in your house, it (is) your
liability to take action against it," High Court Justice Suresh
Kait told lawyers from Facebook India and Google India on
Thursday, according to the Economic Times newspaper.
"Like China, we can block all such websites (that don't
comply). But let us not go to that situation."
A law passed last year in India makes companies responsible
for user content posted on their websites, requiring them to
take it down within 36 hours in case of a complaint. The lower
court affirmed the law last week.
Less than 10 percent of India's 1.2 billion people have
Internet access, though the connected population is rapidly
growing through social media tools on mobile phones, bringing
many into contact for the first time with images intended to
More than 880 million people have mobile phones in India,
but more expensive Internet-capable 3G models are out of reach
Civil rights groups opposed the laws, but politicians say
that posting offensive images in the socially conservative
country with a history of violence between religious groups
presents a danger to the public as Internet use grows.
In December, Telecoms Minister Kapil Sibal weighed into the
debate, urging Facebook, Twitter, Google and others to remove
Despite rules to remove offensive content, India's Internet
access is still largely free when compared with the tight
controls in fellow Asian economic powerhouse China.