Facebook has been sued in California by a Sikh non-profit organization for blocking their page in India, reflecting the challenges U.S. social networking companies face in their expansion into countries with different laws on free speech and expression.
India, which has a history of communal conflicts, has been particularly sensitive about online content that could lead to religious or political discord, and the government has often asked social media companies to block certain content.
Rules framed in 2011 around India’s Information Technology Act allow the government to order intermediaries like network service providers to remove objectionable content, including material that is seen by officials as threatening the integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of the country.
The lawsuit filed by Sikhs For Justice charges the social networking company with blocking its Facebook page last month “on its own or on the behest of the Government of India.” The Facebook page is used to, among other things, run a campaign for a referendum for the creation of an independent Sikh country in India’s Punjab state.
The organization in the U.S. claims that it contacted Facebook and its counsel to ask it to “cease and desist” from its action of blocking the page from being viewed in India. The group’s legal advisor did not receive a “responsive communication,” except a “meaningless correspondence” that asked the Sikh group to contact a specific number if further assistance was required, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Tuesday.
The group has charged Facebook with engaging in “a pattern of civil rights violation and blatant discriminatory conduct” by blocking its content in the whole of India. It has asked the court for a permanent injunction on further blocking of the page, access to Facebook’s correspondence with the Indian government about the block, and an award of damages, besides other relief.
Facebook said Tuesday that the lawsuit was without merit and the company would defend itself.
The Sikh group has previously sued prominent Indians, including a key opposition leader, in U.S. courts, according to reports.
In its Government Requests Report for July to December 2014, Facebook said it restricted 5,832 “pieces of content,” including “anti-religious content and hate speech that could cause unrest and disharmony.”