Thursday, July 20, 2006

Thanks for Blocking the Blogs/Websites, Govt of India!

3-4 days back, when it became apparent that the Govt of India had once again asked India's 153 ISPs to block some internet sites, I had thought that I will start this post with a quote often attributed to Voltaire:

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Unfortunately, I found soon that quoting Voltaire in this situation will be an anticlimax.

I realised that one was up against, not a conspiracy against freedom of speech/information, but plain ignorance and stupidity!!!

But before we go to other things, a basic question:

Can the GOI Legitimately Block Certain Websites?


Apparently, it can.... through a chain of developments that unfolded over last 6 years:

  • The Information Technology Act was passed in 2000.

  • Under the provisions of Article 67 and 68 of the Act, in February 2003, the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) was set up to function under the Union Government's Department of Information Technology (DoT).

  • In July 2003, through an order GSR529(E), CERT-In was empowered to "take on the spot decision on whether the website is to be blocked or not." GSR529(E) permits blocking out of "websites promoting hate content, slander or defamation of others, promoting gambling, promoting racism, violence and terrorism and other such material, in addition to promoting pornography, including child pornography and violent sex."

  • Moreover, according to the Order, "Blocking of such websites may be equated to balanced flow of information and not censorship."

    Which, at the face of it, is fair enough. All countries that provide for freedom of speech also have laws to temper the freedom within limits - in the freest of countries one can't use "free speech" to put national security at stake, indulge in personal slander, or publicly incite people to murder (unless you happen to be Pat Robertson calling for assassination of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, or people of that ilk;0), etc.

    That same year in Sept 2003, CERT-In had used its prerogative, and asked the ISPs to block a yahoogroup, Kynhun, a Meghalaya-based group consisting of around 20 members (it was described as a "separatist movement"). Its sole "anti-national" activity was to bring out a newsletter "The Voice", which voiced its opinions on issues like mining in ecologically sensitive areas, or transfer of a government hosital to a trust owned by the present Chief Minister, etc...

    Since the ISPs could not block one single yahoogroups, the entire yahoogroups site was off-access for about 2 weeks, when access and sanity got restored.

    ... Quite clearly, CERT-In did not learn from its blunder, and so, we have another similar blanket blocking. Accordingg to reports, the GOI wanted to block 18-20 websites, but in one massive sweep, blogspot.com, typepad.com and geocities.com are off the net in India.

    So What Does/Did CERT-In Want To Ban/Block?



    I mean, which were these "websites promoting hate content, slander or defamation of others, promoting gambling, promoting racism, violence and terrorism and other such material, in addition to promoting pornography, including child pornography and violent sex"?

    Since the GOI's order is a hush-hush affair, the following partial list is compiled from news reports from media reports, e.g., The Financial Express, BBC, The Hindu, etc.

    It was fun - and insightful - going through these sites/blogs (if in India, use any of the proxy servers, listed later in the post, to visit these)...

    If this list is in any way indicative of the threats CERT-In takes seriously and responds to, then we sure have a huge problem in this country - not so much from violence and hatred, but from plain and simple stupidity...

    Here goes...

  • http://www.bloodspot.org - The URL opens to "Welcome to the Specialist Practitioners Of Transfusion website" - and I can assure you, they are not vampires

  • http://www.clickatell.com - The URL takes one to "the world's leading provider of Bulk SMS messaging services and SMS Gateway connectivity with reliable coverage to 569 networks in 183 countries worldwide."... etc.

    Across the various reports, there was some mix up about commonsense.blospot.com and commonfolks.blogspot.com, so I tried the combinations:

  • http://commonsense.blogspot.com - A blog with no entry, but just an introduction "I am a intelligent man, with an extreme sense of the common, the things that should be thought, or seen that just aren't. Although my content is good, my spelling usually does suck, i do not ask for corrections, but I do ask for people to read it, and send me back responces. Thank you"

  • http://common-sense.blogspot.com/ - which took me to a blog whose last entry was in June, 2003 - previous postings were on varied topics ranging from Saddam Hussein not being found to the Honda ad that took 606 takes to shoot.

  • http://commonfolks.blogspot.com - someone with a solo entry on how much s/he loves Scandinavia

  • http://commonfolkcommonsense.blogspot.com - a chinese blog in chinese script (Now, this site can perhaps be a threat to national security! ;0)

  • http://dalitstan.org - The site reads "The Dalitstan Organization is a Human Rights Organization working for the Upliftment of Dalits, the Black Untouchables of India. These form one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in the World, enduring the 2000-year Sudra Holocaust."... There are some critical articles/section that do highlight the oppression, Bahujan Samaj, etc., but nothing that meets the CERT-In's criteria of blocking a website.

  • http://exposingtheleft.blogspot.com - ah, finally here is a site that is critical: of Tony Snow, Hizbullah and Hamas, Iran, ban on same-sex mariage. Currently, its author was quite thrilled about being banned by GOI.

  • http://www.hinduunity.org - One more. This site is "Promoting and supporting the ideals of Bajrang Dal: VHP, Youth Wing."... It is critical of Islam, Pakistan, Pseudo-Secularism, communists, christians, Bangladeshis, caste system, Gandhi, family planning, etc., and blames all of them for the woes of the world and India. One may disagree with the content of the site (I do!), but nowhere it come near to inciting violence. One may perhaps even interpret some of the writings on the site as "promoting racism", but that will always be subject to once subjective interpretation.

  • http://www.hinduhumanrights.org - one more "pro-Hindu" site - this one is UK-based, which is critical of the victimisation of Hindus across the world. But again, nothing so objectionable/threatening/inciting in it to merit blocking it.

    Like with commonsense/commonfolks, for princesskimberley as well, I tried the following variations:

  • http://www.princesskimberley.com - the URL leads to "http://www.geocities.com/princess_leia_rebel_leader" but "page not found". Of course, if a site is named "Princess Leia Rebel Leader", then quite likely it would have contents about Star Wars!!!

  • http://princesskimberley.blogspot.com - a blog maintained/started by "Tony"; so far not a single entry

  • http://princesskimberly.blogspot.com - a blog with just two entries made in March, 2004. The first one talks about watching "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and the other starts with "My life is extremely boring"... Hardly the earth-shattering kind of matter that requires CERT-In intervention!!

  • http://pajamaeditors.blogspot.com - According to The Hindu, "Only two webblogs — pyjamaeditors.blogspot.com and exposingtheleft.blogspot.com — have been blocked," Gulshan Rai, head of cyber security agency Computer Emergency Response Team, told AFP.... So here is the culprit. The "editors in pajama" are currently quite kicked about being banned in India! - the previous post is about "intragalectic warning"...

  • http://www.rahulyadav.com - Rahul Yadav's resume says that he is "a student in the MIS (Masters in Information Science) program at the School of Library & Information Science, Indiana University Bloomington... currently enrolled in my 3rd semester of the MIS program and I expect to graduate this December."

    Rahul is clearly not very amused about being blocked: "The government of India has blocked my website for some unknown reason. I am guessing that it may have been due to the links to various political groups in the Links section of my website. These groups are the main opposition to the current Congress Party government. For this reason, I believe I am being blocked. India has no right to claim the title "world's largest democracy" if they are going to tell people what they can and can't view on the internet..."

    [Note: this adds to one more of my reasons why we live in a crazy world...]

    ...and, therefore, Thank You, GOI, CERT-In!

    ...
  • because, during these last few days, the blocking helped many bloggers to discover ways of circumventing the ban by using anonymous sufing sites, e.g.,
    http://www.boreproxy.com/
    http://www.secure-tunnel.com/
    http://www.anonymizer.com/
    http://www.the-cloak.com/
    http://proxify.com/
    http://www.shysurfer.com/
    Etc...

  • because, the Indian bloggers also discovered the pkblog - a happy irony that this is hosted by Pakistani bloggers
    http://www.pkblogs.com/

  • because many found (and helped each other to find) that if you use firefax as a browser, and then download and install Torpark 1.5 v, you can surf through any cyberblock

  • ...and more importantly, because they once again discovered each other, and became aware of being part of a community....

    UPDATE (July 21, 2006):
    Some friend sent me the scanned copy of the Ministry circular asking the ISPs to block the websites.

    It is also likely that the blanket blocking may be lifted in a couple of days. But the censoring of these selected websites/blogs will continue!!!

    However, it is still far from clear what security threats these websites pose to the country... and who decides, on what basis, that a certain website should be banned?

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