NEW DELHI >> The recent panic that led tens of thousands of Indians to flee their homes has largely subsided, leaving in its wake an uneven government crackdown on the Internet and text-messaging services that top officials blame for circulating the baseless rumors that set off the exodus.
Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, a spokesman for India’s Home Ministry, called the crackdown essential to preserve law and order. But many of the sites that the government has sought to block are general news sites, such as pages from the British newspaper The Telegraph. And some of the Twitter accounts the government sought to freeze are those of journalists, critics or political comedians who appear to have done nothing to further any violence.
Pranesh Prakash, of the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society, said the campaign showed evidence of the government simply flailing.
“I don’t see this as politically motivated censorship,” Prakash said. “I see this as gross ineptitude by the government.”
The restrictions came after a cascading series of attacks and counterattacks between rival ethnic groups in the northeastern state of Assam that claimed at least 78 lives, destroyed more than 14,000 homes and prompted nearly a half million people to flee to refugee camps. That conflict started in July and worsened in early August.
But there was no broader issue until a protest by Muslims in Mumbai turned violent, and some northeastern residents were attacked in the city of Pune. Suddenly websites and cellphone text messages started carrying misleading accounts that fed a nationwide panic among migrants from the northeast.
Government officials initially blamed Pakistan for fomenting ethnic tension, and officials limited each cellphone user to just five text messages per day and sought to block access to some 310 Web pages and sites.
The crackdown was so severe that the U.S. issued a cautious warning. On Thursday the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said, “As the Indian government seeks to preserve security, we are urging them also to take into account the importance of freedom of expression in the online world.”
On Thursday night, the government increased to 20 from five the number of daily text messages that each of the country’s nearly 700 million mobile phone users could send. Even so, the restrictions are likely to affect tens of millions of users and have shut down thousands of businesses that use text messages for marketing.
“If you want us to send out free messages advocating peace and harmony, we are offering to do that,” said Subho Ray, president of the Internet and Mobile Association of India, which represents some of the marketing companies. “But why are we banned from carrying out legitimate businesses?”
The relationship between India’s government and growing social media has long been tense. For decades, the Indian government set and enforced strict standards for the country’s newspaper, film and television industries. But even a shadow of that sort of control has been impossible to exert over popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, where vast amounts of user-generated content are largely unsupervised.
Last year, the government tried to enforce rules requiring that such content be preapproved, but they were withdrawn amid a storm of criticism. In 2006, the government blocked a number of blogs, including one by a U.S. teenager who called herself Princess Kimberly. In 2009, the government banned a popular and sexually explicit online comic.
A major factor in the disconnect between India’s leadership and the world of social media is simply age. Of the country’s 100 million Internet users, the fastest-growing group of freewheeling texters and posters are younger than 25, the demographic that makes up half of India’s population of 1.2 billion people.
Raghav Bahl, a media executive and author, noted that, in contrast, most of India’s top political leaders are in their 70s and 80s and began their political careers as socialists who admired the Soviet Union.
“Today, they may grudgingly accept free-market reforms, but their core ideology remains socialist,” he said.
Analysts say that gap helps explain why the government has seen social media as one of the causes of the unrest rather than as a tool to curb it. There is widespread consensus among media analysts that India’s increasingly boisterous media are a crucial reason that the nation’s long history of ethnic rioting seems largely to be on the wane.
“In essence, the government has chosen to block rather than use social media to curb the violence,” Prakash said. “To stop rather than use SMS to calm things down. And that is a problem.”
Some Twitter users responded to the government’s restrictions by blacking out their display pictures. Some said they would stop posting for several weeks.
Dhatwalia said the government valued press freedoms but had to hold social media to some standard of responsibility.
“What happens is that if certain information through social media is floating around which is objectionable to a certain country, that information is required to be stopped or removed from the public domain,” he said.
Government officials also complained that Twitter was initially resistant to demands that it freeze or suspend certain accounts.
“With regard to Twitter, they were asked to remove certain pages,” he said. “They have expressed certain technical difficulties in finding and removing those pages. There is a discussion about this.”
On Friday evening, the office of India’s prime minister announced that Twitter had complied with its requests to take action against six people who had been impersonating the prime minister on Twitter.
“Twitter has now conveyed to us that action has been taken, stating ‘We have removed the reported profiles from circulation due to violation of our Terms of Service regarding impersonation,”’ the office announced.
Carolyn Penner, a Twitter spokeswoman, declined to comment.