A Delhi court on Friday issued summons to various foreign-based social networking sites, including Facebook and Google, to face criminal charges for allegedly hosting objectionable contents, and directed them to appear before it on March 13.
It asked the Ministry of External Affairs to get the summons served on these companies. The court direction came after the counsel for Facebook India said over 10 out of 21 companies named as accused in the case were foreign-based and that the court would have to issue process to serve the summons on them.
The court was hearing a private complaint filed by a journalist, Vinay Rai, against these firms for allegedly web-casting objectionable contents. The summons were issued to websites, including Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Youtube.
"Let the process (to serve the summons) on (foreign-based) the accused be sent through the MEA as per the process," Metropolitan Magistrate (MM) Sudesh Kumar said. The court listed the matter for further hearing on March 13. "The accused are allowed exemption for today only but are directed to appear in person on the next date of hearing without fail," the magistrate said.
The court passed the order after advocate Shashi Tripathi, appearing for the complainant, told the magistrate that he would file a fresh list of the addresses of the various foreign-based sites for serving the summons through the MEA.
Meanwhile, Ajit Balakrishnan, chairman and CEO of Rediff.com, said, "In our various meetings with the government, we haven't been told to monitor contents on websites. Taking down objectionable or offensive contents, as and when reported by users, is up to the websites and they should take action within the stipulated time period as defined in the IT Act." Balakrishnan said the government should look at bringing further amendments to the IT Act "to manage sharing of information online."
When contacted, Facebook declined to comment. Google spokesperson said, "We did file a petition before the Delhi High Court. The court has now issued a notice to the petitioner. We can't comment further at this stage."
During the hearing, senior counsel Siddharth Luthra, representing Facebook India, sought adjournment for the day, saying the matter was pending before the Delhi High Court and the case file was also in the High Court. Luthra said, "The matter is listed in the High Court for January 16... No order has been passed by the High Court during yesterday's (Thursday) proceedings. Since the record (case file) is not here, we are seeking adjournment for today only". He said that one of the accused, who is chairman of Facebook, is based in California, US, and hence the court would have to direct the MEA for serving summons on him. The counsel for Google India Pvt Ltd also asked the court to adjourn the matter today. He said that summons issued to accused companies Orkut, Youtube and Blogspot have been mistakenly served at their premises here.
The court, which had earlier directed the Centre to take "immediate appropriate steps" in this regard, was told by the counsel for Ministry of Communication and Information Technology that they would file a report today itself.
The court had on December 23 last issued summons to them against which some of the accused companies had moved the High Court. The summons to the foreign firms had not been served. The magistrate's December 23 order had come three days after another court in a civil case had restrained these sites including Facebook, Google and Youtube from webcasting any "anti-religious" or "anti-social" content promoting hatred or communal disharmony.
The magistrate had said, "It appears from a bare perusal of the documents that prima facie the accused in connivance with each other and other unknown persons are selling, publicly exhibiting and have put into circulation obscene, lascivious content".
In December last year, telecom minister Kapil Sibal weighed into the debate, urging Facebook, Twitter, Google and others to remove offensive material from their websites. Civil rights groups have 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