A Delhi court sent a summons to the headquarters of foreign Internet companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo on Friday, in a private case against objectionable content online.
The Indian operations of some of these companies had earlier said that they were not responsible for the content, as their parent companies run the websites.
Local newspaper editor Vinay Rai found religious content on the sites that he considered offensive, and filed a complaint with a Delhi court, prompting Additional Metropolitan Magistrate Sudesh Kumar to issue notices to 21 Internet sites in December.
In an appeal against the order earlier in the week Google India told the Delhi High Court that it was not responsible for the company's websites, which are run by the parent company in the U.S., adopting a pass-the-buck stand that many Internet companies have taken when sued in India. Facebook also petitioned the High Court.
As the Indian operations of the foreign Internet companies threw up their hands and said they were not responsible, Rai sought permission from the magistrate to serve notice to the foreign entities through India's Ministry of External Affairs, he said on Friday.
The magistrate has asked the foreign entities and Indian Internet companies mentioned in the complaint to appear before the court on March 13, Rai said.
Google declined to comment on the new development. Yahoo also declined to comment as the matter was still before the courts. Facebook and Microsoft did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The case before Magistrate Kumar is being watched closely as the Indian government has also expressed concern recently about objectionable content, including religious content, on Internet sites.
India's Minister for Communications and IT, Kapil Sibal, told local TV channels in December that some of the Internet companies were allowing content that would fail to live up to the laws that they are enforcing in their own country by their own community standards. When asked by the ministry in some instances to remove certain offensive content, the Internet companies had declined citing their community standards, Sibal said.
Some newspaper reports said that Sibal had asked Internet companies to pre-screen objectionable content before it was posted online. The minister told the TV channels that he had not expected that, but wanted the Internet companies to evolve a framework whereby content that was objectionable or inflammatory could be quickly removed.
India's Information Technology Act requires intermediaries like Internet service providers to remove content that is found objectionable within a period of 36 hours of being notified of the content.
The pressure on foreign Internet companies to fall in line with the local law may have just got higher.
"Like China, we will block all such web sites," High Court Judge Suresh Kait said on Thursday while disallowing Facebook's and Google's petition for a stay on the proceedings of the court of Magistrate Sudesh Kumar. He asked counsel for Facebook and Google India to develop a mechanism to keep a check and remove "offensive and objectionable" material from their web pages, according to a report by the Press Trust of India.