NEW DELHI U.S. companies Facebook, Google and Yahoo, and other internet firms, have been ordered by two Indian courts to remove material considered religiously offensive, the latest skirmish in a growing battle over website content in the world's largest democracy.
One court in the capital Delhi on Friday issued summons to 19 companies to stand trial for offences relating to distributing obscene material to minors, after being shown images it said were offensive to Hindus, Muslims and Christians, the PTI news agency said.
"The accused in connivance with each other and other unknown persons are selling, publicly exhibiting and have put into circulation obscene, lascivious content, Metropolitan Magistrate Sudesh Kumar said on Friday in the PTI report.
India has generally unrestricted access to the Internet for those of its 1.2 billion people who can afford it and are on the electrical and telephone grids.
So far only about a tenth of the population uses the Web, but with the number of connections growing fast in the religiously conservative society, concerns about the nature of web content are growing in some quarters, including senior government officials.
Another Delhi court earlier this week told the websites to remove photographs, videos or text which might hurt religious sentiments.
"We believe that access to information is the foundation of a free society," a Google spokesman said in an emailed statement. "Where content is illegal or breaks our terms of service we will continue to remove it."
The spokesman told Reuters the company had not yet been officially notified of the courts' action.
The courts and the other companies were not immediately available for comment.
Earlier this month, Telecoms Minister Kapil Sibal urged Facebook, Twitter, Google and others to remove offensive material, unleashing a storm of criticism from internet users complaining of censorship.
The Delhi court cases were brought by individuals, one by a journalist and the other by an Islamic scholar who runs a website called fatwaonline.org that gives answers to moral questions.
Despite rules to remove offensive content, India's internet access is largely free when compared with tight controls in fellow Asian economic powerhouse China. But in line with many other governments around the world, India has become increasingly nervous about the power of social media.
India has 100 million internet users, the third-largest user base behind China and the United States which is forecast to grow to 300 million users in the next three years.
(Reporting By Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Erica Billingham)