Bloggers blocked after Mumbai blasts

by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Inter Press Service

India's fast-growing community of 'bloggers' and Internet users was in for a rude shock when it found favourite sites blocked out in the wake of the serial blasts in crowded trains that killed 200 commuters in the western port city of Mumbai, last week.

Shock turned to anger when it became apparent that there was a government order to Internet Service providers (ISPs) behind the censorship--although the move was a response to hate messages on websites and 'blogs' that could have spread enmity between India's majority Hindus and minority Muslims.

A 'blog' is short for 'Web log' or a type of Web site in which entries are made as in a journal and displayed in a reverse chronological order. Blogs carry comments on various issues, serve as personal diaries, and may carry photographs, audio tracks, videos, and links to other blogs or Web sites.

On the weekend, Mridula Dwivedi, a teacher of management studies based in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of India's capital, discovered that visiting any blog on 'blogspot' resulted in a message stating "site blocked." On contacting her ISP, 'Spectranet', she was told that access to certain Web sites had been blocked on government instructions.

Soon, other Internet users discovered that they were unable to reach their favourite blogs hosted on sites such as 'geocities,' 'blogspot,' and 'typepad,' that used to be independent Web sites but have now been acquired by search engine majors such as Yahoo! and Google.

Enquiries led to a little known organisation under the department of electronics in India's Ministry of Information Technology called the Computer Emergency Response Team - India (CERT-IN), that had been set up under the Information Technology Act of 2000.

Flexing its muscles, CERT-IN had issued a letter of recommendation to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) which then issued a notification on July 15 to various ISPs in the country, ordering them to block access to 18 selected Web sites.

A number of these Web sites are believed to be affiliated to extremist organisations and publish material considered inimical to communal harmony. "Although CERT-IN is meant to be primarily concerned with Internet security, it often oversees 'censorship' under a legal clause that seeks to ensure 'balanced flow of information,'" explained Shivam Vij, a blogger and freelance journalist.

Government departments seeking to block access to a Web site can ask CERT-IN to issue a gag order but after confirming the authenticity of the complaint. "The blocking of thousands of blogs is the result of, on the one hand, an indifferent government which couldn't care less if people are able to read blogs, and on the other, incompetent ISPs who acted overzealously and blocked hundreds of thousands of sites when they were asked to block merely 18 sites," Vij said in an interview with IPS.

Gulshan Rai, who heads CERT-IN, was not available for comment and would not take calls. Vij claimed that when he asked Rai why so many Web sites were inaccessible, he remarked: "Somebody must have blocked some sites. What is your problem?"

"The problem essentially arose out of the fact that the ISPs, instead of blocking access to specific blogs, ended up blocking access to entire Web sites because it is technically easier and less expensive to do so," explains Ravi Visvesvaraya Prasad, a New Delhi-based expert on cyber security and technology used by terrorists. "Instead of particular blogs, entire Web sites are easier to block--it can be done quickly and by deploying relatively few people," he told IPS.

Another expert on cyber security, Subimal Bhattacharya, said the government's move had opened up a "Pandora's Box of complaints about curbs on freedom of expression."

"Even if blocking access to specific blogs is more expensive, technically challenging, and time consuming, I would have preferred a more selective and nuanced approach to the problem," he adds. "It's a bit like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer," he told IPS.

Associated with the Centre for Security Studies, Zurich, that prepared a detailed report on the status of cyber security in 20 countries earlier this year, Bhattacharya said the Indian government had unfairly penalised "serious bloggers" for the alleged misdemeanours of a few errant users of the Internet. "You can't curb freedom of expression in a democracy.''

Other cyber law experts like Praveen Dalal told IPS that the "government decision could be in violation of provisions in the Indian Constitution that upholds the fundamental right to free speech and expression, if it is found to be arbitrary, unreasonable, and unfair."

Dalal said Indian law allows the government to block access to Web sites if these are found to contain pornography, speeches of hate, contempt, slander and defamation or if these promote racism, violence or terrorism. "These legal provisions have, however, been infrequently used," he added.

Speaking with IPS, Amitabh Singhal, member of the executive council of the ISP Association of India, representing 45 ISPs in the country, acknowledged that "certain ISPs, not all, had blocked the Internet protocol (IP) addresses that led to the blocking of entire Web sites."

"We are confident that the problem would be sorted out in the next 48 hours," he said on Wednesday evening.

One of the first actions initiated by CERT-IN was in 2003 when it approved the blocking of an obscure mailing list run by a banned militant outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council of the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya in north-eastern India. "Ironically, the popularity and visibility of the list went up by leaps and bounds, despite it being blocked by all ISPs--many could see the list via e-mail or proxy surfing," says Vij.

Prasad recalled that "a number of reputed organisations in the United States had refused to host a Web site sponsored by a militant Hindu group, the Bajrang Dal, on the grounds that it was filled with hate speech." This Web site ( had even called for the "assassination" of leading public figures like the Pope besides well-known Indian politicians like Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief minister of India's largest province of Uttar Pradesh, and federal Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav.

The same Web site even published a list of journalists who were ''born to Hindu parents but had become anti-Hindu." It provided addresses and phone numbers of individuals, including prominent Muslim Indians in the U.S., calling for their 'elimination.'

The sole official word on the weekend action came from the Indian embassy in Washington. "A two-page write up containing extremely derogatory references to Islam and the holy prophet, which had the potential to inflame religious sensitivities in India and create serious law and order problems in the country appeared in a blog facilitated by well known search engines,'' said A.R. Ghanshyam, deputy consul-general, in a written response to a query on Wednesday. "Department of Telecommunications have now clarified the issue and the error is being rectified and it is expected that normalcy in respect of blogs will soon be restored.''

In the recent past, China has been accused of not allowing Internet users in that country to access Web sites that may contain views not acceptable to the current government in Beijing--for instance, comments about the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square or the activities of the
Falun Gong dissident group.

"Google and Microsoft both gave in to the demands of the Chinese government by installing technology that allowed for constant surveillance of all Internet users in that country and also blocked access to specific Web sites, including the sites of American news organisations like CNN and Fox News," Prasad said. He added that certain monarchies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and some conservative regimes in the United Arab Emirates, also ensure that ISPs use technological tools at their command to block access to pornographic sites.

Bloggers in India, including Vij, who have organised themselves into a group called Bloggers Against Censorship, are hoping that India would not join countries that regularly censor access to the World Wide Web.

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