Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Clandestine Nature of Internet Censorship in India

An edited version of this article by me has appeared in Tehelka.

This post was first made on my blog, but it got slashdotted and my site has suffered from the slashdot effect which I'm trying to fix.

My blog is at www.shivamvij.com and its feed here.

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Books and films are banned as a result of protests when someone claims to be offended, but websites are blocked unilaterally, clandestinely by the government in its benign attempt to save you from propaganda of all kinds ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right.




On 29 June this year, the Department of Telecom of the Ministry of India’s Communication and Information Technology asked some 150 Internet Servive Providers to block access to the website of the People’s War Group, www.geocities.com/cpimlpwg. Exactly a month later, the DoT issues another letter informing ISPs that “M/S Yahoo! Inc.” (which runs Geocities) had removed the PWG site anyway, and so all ISPs were requested to make sure that Geocities per se was not blocked.

This is the first time a provider of Internet services has agreed to the Indian government’s demand of completely removing a particular website, thus establishing a dangerous precedent. Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft do this regularly for China and other countries, with the difference that it is public knowledge there, and these companies come under attack from free speech activists the world over.

It is curious as to what made Yahoo! Change its mind about India: in 2003 they had refused the India’s demand to remove a mailing list run on Yahoo! Groups by a banned militant outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), a militant outfit of the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya.

The terms and conditions of these online services – which no one reads – clearly say that they may terminate their services on requests by law enforcement or other government agencies without prior notice.

On 15 May 2006, the Maoist website www.peoplesmarch.com was deleted by their hosting company on the request of the Indian government. Not that it has made much of a difference to them: they’re now at http://peoplesmarch.googlepages.com, whose homepage asserts their right to free speech and condemns India’s censorship attempts. So how long before this site gets blocked too? To be sure they have put up all their content on http://peoplesmarch.wordpress.com as well. Planning to block this one too? They have the content stored somewhere on their hard disk and they’ll put it up on a thousand free sites. There’s also http://naxalrevolution.blogspot.com and many more.

The most illustrative case of Internet censorship in India is that of Hinduunity.org, which, though run from the US by one Rohit Vyasmaan, claims to be the official website of the Bajrang Dal. The Hindu Unity site posts anti-Muslim hate speech, creative interpretation of Qur’anic verses and most famously, a “hit list” of those who it says are against Hindus. The hit list has on it not just leftist columnists but also people and organisations who in India would be regarded as being somewhat sympathetic to Hindutva. Lalu Prasad Yadav is listed for “swindling Gau-chara’s money”!

In 2001, the site's then host in the US, Addr.com, received complaints about the site. Vyasmaan told Addr.com that his site did not advocate violence, but they shut down the site anyway for its very obvious hate speech. As it happened, Hinduunity.org was then rescued by Rabbi Meir’s Kahane group, a banned Zionist organisation in the US. Hinduunity now advocates “Hindu militancy” on its site, and heavily aligns with the anti-Palestine cause. No wonder it is block in countries of the Middle East as well.

Hinduunity.org was first blocked by India in 2004, when the NDA was in power and when the site was calling Atal Bihari Vajpayee names for ‘catching the pseudo-secularism bug’. Curiously, in July 2006 the DoT again asked for the site to be blocked. Why would they want to block an already blocked site? Hinduunity.org, which has a number of articles against Sonia Gandhi, responded by calling it a conspiracy of “hijra Manmohan Singh”.

They have now created a mirror site at Hinduunity.com.

Which is the problem with Internet censorship: few would defend the right to free speech of Naxalite, Maoist or Hindutva organisations that advocate violence, but blocking them is futile because they’ll move elsewhere. Note the word ‘blocking’ because you can’t ‘ban’ anything on the Net.

The right to free speech in India’s Constitution comes with the caveat of “reasonable restrictions”. Although the IT Act 2000 has no provision for blocking websites, the Department of Information Technology made it possible vide Gazette Notification GSR 529 (E) dated 7 July 2003. It said, “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 can easily be blocked since all such websites may not claim constitutional right of free speech. Blocking of such websites may be equated to balanced flow of information and not censorship.”

Which doesn’t sound very objectionable: just that the Gazette notification has no provision of informing the public, via press releases or otherwise, as to which site is being blocked and why. Censorship of books and films happens all the time in India: most recently, the Haryana state government has banned one Prakash Madan’s Mahatma Gandhi: A Curse for Bharat. The difference is that when books and films are banned people get to know about it, there is the opportunity that reasonable public debate may prevail over “reasonable restrictions”.

Authorities like intelligence agencies, the Home Secreatry, Home Secretaries of the states have to first ask the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) to block a site. CERT-IN then forwards ‘genuine’ requests to the DoT which issues orders to ISPs. The Gazette notification says that CERT-IN will maintain utmost secrecy about the matter. The idea of conducting internet censorship clandestinely seems to serve only one purpose: preventing a public furore. It has always been so: in 1999, when the government got the website of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn blocked in view if the Kargil war, nobody would ever have got to know had journalist Siddharth Varadarajan not discovered it per chance. Part of the problem is that when you visit a blocked website in India, it gives you Error 404 – ‘Page Not Found’ – leading you to think that the site may be down. In China, the webpage would read ‘blocked’; in Saudi Arabia it would also give you an email ID where you can petition the government to unblock that site. In democratic India, it is chori chori, chupkay chupkay.

When the blocking has come out in the open, it has been due to the incompetence of the Internet Service Providers who find it technically easier to block entire domains - succh as blogspot.com or geocities.com - rather than sub-domain sites hosted on them.

China and Middle East block sites in order to suppress political or social dissent. Website blocking in India, on the other hand, is driven by nation security-related paranoia, or hate speech that may lead to violence. The mai-baap state must save its citizens from propaganda of both the extreme right and the extreme left. Just that none of the sites blocked have been proved to have cause violence: the PWG website on Geocities did call for killing Chandrababu Naidu and other politicians in 2002, but they went ahead with their plans and tried to do so anyway, website or no website.


ERROR 404: WEBSITES THAT ARE BLOCKED IN INDIA

Internet telephony: The sites clickatell.com and hotfoon.com allow you to send sms-es and make calls via the internet. There are many more such sites that are not blocked, and which can be used by terrorist outfits to communicate without allowing Indian agencies to monitor them. The DoT could not even spell Clickatell correctly in their order, but ISPs have blocked it anyway. Clickatell is a large multinational organisation which clarified to this reporter that if their platform has been used by third parties to deliver unlawful messages, their own technology enables us to track down any offenders. Hotfoon.com is run by an NRI, Anil Raj, and its India operations are said to be running out of Hyderabad. Mr Raj did not respond to this reporter’s query.

Dalit separatism: www.dalitstan.org (again spelled incorrectly in the DoT order!) is currently down. It advocates the creation of several separate nations from India including a Dalit homeland. The site has most probably been blocked on the request of Hindu advocacy organisations in the US and Canada.

Chinese checkers: commonfolkcommonsense.blogspot.com is a Chinese blog with barely a few posts – and that too in Mandarin!

Hindutva sites: Hinduunity.org and Hinduhumanrights.org. They may have some hate content but there has been no proven case of these sites inciting violence. Whereas Hinduunity talks of militant Hindutva, Hinduhumanrights.org’s primary focus is on projecting Hindus as martyrs. www.rahulyadav.com, the website of a grad student in the US, has been blocked for its Hindutva sub-site, www.rahulyadav.com/hb, which he has by now shifted to www.hindurashtra.org.

Pornography: They haven’t yet turned to pornography, except for www.sex.in, which is down anyway, and is registered in the name of one Frank Becker.

American right-wing sites: princesskimberly.blogspot.com (misspelled in the DoT order), mypetjawa.mu.nu, pajamaeditors.blogspot.com, exposingtheleft.blogspot.com, thepiratescove.us, bamapachyderm.com, merrimusings.typepad.com, mackers-world.com. Most of these are blogs that have nothing to do with India, and have anti-Muslim hate speech in varying degrees. It’s the sort of Islamophobia that is routine in a post-9/11 America and the West, and the sort of which was best exemplified in the furore over the Danish cartoons that depicted Prophet Mohammed. They have responded with a mix of amusement and anger at being blocked in India. Merrimusings has now shifted to http://www.merrimusings.mu.nu and proudly proclaims, “Banned in India”. Trouble is, there are thousands more such websites. The Princess Kimberly blog did write a post once called "Infidel Puppies vs. Quran Woof" but when the blocking order came the blog had just two posts about living a depressed life.

Websites that doesn’t even exist! www.nndh.com, bloodroyaltriped.com, imagesearchyahoo.com, www.imamali8.com. These URLs are dead and only the DoT mandarins can explain why they were blocked. The blocking of harmless, dead URLs which have no content whatsoever, and without telling the public why they are being blocked, indicates a ham-handedness that is scary because they can block any website any time, without being answerable.


BYPASS: How to access blocked sites

You can still access blocked websites through RSS readers, Google caches, or by using anonymisers that let you surf via internet connections hosted outside India. These include:
http://www.translate.google.com
http://www.hidemyass.com
http://surf-free-anonymous-proxy.com
http://www.shadowsurf.com
http://www.inblogs.net
http://www.pkblogs.com
http://tools.superhit.in
http://www.browseatwork.com
http://httproxy.mozdev.org (Firefox extension)
http://www.ninjaproxy.com
http://www.shysurfer.com
http://anonymouse.org

Or download softwares such as http://webaccelerator.google.com or http://torpark.nfshost.com.

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