NEW DELHI — India's top telecommunications official said Tuesday that Internet giants such as Facebook and Google have ignored his demands to screen derogatory material from their sites, so the government would have to act on its own.
The dispute highlights India's continuing difficulty in balancing the Internet culture of freewheeling discourse with its homegrown religious and political sensitivities. Government officials are upset about Web pages that are insulting to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and major religious figures.
Kapil Sibal, India's telecommunications minister, said he spoke repeatedly with officials from major Internet companies over the past three months and asked them to come up with a voluntary framework to keep offensive material off the Internet.
"This is a matter of great concern to us. We have to take care of the sensibility of our people," he said.
In a meeting Monday, the Internet companies told him there was nothing they could do, he said, so the government would formulate a policy on its own. He declined to specify what that policy would be.
"We are seeking their cooperation, and if somebody is not willing to cooperate on incendiary material like this, it is the duty of government to think of steps that we need to take," he said. "We don't want to interfere in freedom of the press, but this kind of material should not be allowed."
Indian media reports said that during the meeting Monday, Sibal specifically told officials from Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft about posts that were insulting to Singh, Gandhi and religious leaders.
Facebook said in a statement Tuesday it would remove content that "is hateful, threatening, incites violence or contains nudity."
"We recognize the government's interest in minimizing the amount of abusive content that is available online and will continue to engage with the Indian authorities as they debate this important issue," the company said.
Google said it removes content that violates local law and its own standards.
"But when content is legal and doesn't violate our policies, we won't remove it just because it's controversial, as we believe that people's differing views, so long as they're legal, should be respected and protected," Google said in a statement.
Yahoo declined to comment and Microsoft had no immediate comment.
One person with knowledge of the meeting Monday told The Associated Press that the demand was sparked by a Facebook page about Sonia Gandhi. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Facebook has three pages titled "I hate Sonia Gandhi," two titled "We hate Sonia Gandhi," and one titled "Manmohan Singh is a puppet of Sonia Gandhi." India has more than 25 million Facebook users.
Before his news conference Tuesday, Sibal showed reporters Web illustrations showing Singh and Gandhi in compromising positions as well as a site showing pigs running through Islam's holy city of Mecca, a clear insult to Muslims.
"I believe that no reasonable person aware of these sensibilities of large sections of communities in this country and aware of community standards as they are applicable in India would wish to see this content in the public domain," he said.
Sibal said the Internet companies had told him that they were applying U.S. standards to their sites, and he objected, saying that they needed to be sensitive to Indian sensibilities.
Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers Association of India, said Internet companies need to be mindful of concerns over national security and national sensitivities.
"I am not favoring censorship – self-regulation is the best censorship available to our system," he said. "We should not do anything which should harm the peace of the country."
India has had conflicts with technology companies in the past over information access, and Sibal said Tuesday that many of the companies have been reluctant to hand over data the government has asked for related to terrorists.
Last year, India threatened to ban the popular corporate email and messenger services on Blackberry devices amid security concerns over access to encrypted information. The government later backed down.
The Indian government has made 68 requests to Google this year to remove content, according to Google. The government has also expressed concerns that Google Earth could be used by terrorists to examine targets in preparation for an attack.
Ravi Nessman can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/ravinessman