Updated: Crazy internet censorship time in India, again
Update: Please see bottom of the post for several updates.
“Shivam!” Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama called this morning. “It’s 2006 all over again. They’ve blocked Typepad.” I instantly knew what this meant. They’ve done this at least twice before, the fellas at CERT-IN. In 2003, 2006 and now 2011.
Typepad.com is a blogging service, much like Google Blogger (Blogspot.com) or WordPress.com that this site, Kafila.org runs on. Now. Airtel users who go to Typepad.com find this:
Users of most ISPs can see this, but government-owned MTNL has ironically not caught up :)
Firstly, this makes me happy because it is the first time I’m seeing a notice that says the government has asked us to block this. Until now, my grouse had been that when the Government of India asks ISPs to block websites, you only get an Error 404 Page Not Available notice. So this is progress: the least we need in internet censorship is transparency. My point is that when books and films are banned, we all get to know and it results in public debate. But websites are blocked silently, we don’t even get to know, and there’s no debate. The most stringent internet regulation regimes in he world give you a block notice when you visit that site.
What has not changed from 2003 and 2006 is this: Typepad is merely a platform and most probably they wanted to block a particular blog on Typepad which is essentially a sub-domain (like, say, Indiasucks.typepad.com) but the ISPs didn’t care and blocked the main domain (Typepad.com) altogether. This means that thousands if not hundreds of thousands of blogs on Typepad are rendered inaccessible.
In other words, the government wanted a blog blocked. The ISPs ended up blocking thousands of blogs. There’s a saying in Hindi about this: Hanuman ji se kaha jadi booti le ke aao, Hanuman ji poora pahad le aaye (When asked to fetch herbal medicines from the mountain, Lord Hanuman got the whole mountain.)
This is exactly what happened in 2006 when the government wanted some blogs hosted on Google Blogger (Blogspot.com) blocked and the ISPs blocked blogspot.com as a whole. It took exactly seven days for correction. First, bloggers created hype and expressed outrage online. The media picked it up as a story. The government didn’t care until it made it to the New York Times. And then the government threatened to revoke licenses of ISPs for causing such embarrassment.
This is also exactly what happened in 2003 when they wanted to block a Yahoo! Group. First they blocked all of Yahoo! Groups and then they corrected the error, blocking only one Yahoo! Group of a north-east militant group. The tamasha lasted a whole week.
The good thing in this silly business of the government is that just when it wants to hide the censorship, the ISPs’ incompetence lets us know. Only this time, ISPs are putting up a notice.
Typepad is not the only site blocked this time. Others include Mobango.com, a mobile apps developer. Perhaps the Mobango. It seems Mobango is taking it up with the government, and has no idea why they’ve been blocked.
Another casualty is ClickATell.com, a website that helps you send bulk SMS. Until now, some 20 plus websites were blocked in India, including Savitabhabhi.com, a comic strip deemed pornographic by the Government of India.
The point here is that we the internet users of India deserve the right to know what our government is doing on our behalf, what they think we can view online and what they can’t, and we have the right to challenge that. The way they block websites currently, doesn’t give us those rights, treats us like morons.
Internet censorship in India takes place currently under no specific law but by a mechanism the government has set-up through a Gazette notification. Home secretaries of the centre and state governments, and Directors General of Police of states, amongst others, can ask the India Computer Emergency Response Team, which functions under the Department of Information Technology, Ministry of Communications and IT, to block websites. CERT-IN agrees to some request but not all. The CERT-IN website has no information on any of this.
But that’s not good enough for the government. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry wants to regulate the internet as well. They’re giving themselves sweeping powers that should worry us all, under new rules that they have framed. Amongst other things, these they especially take note of the existence of blogs, and say they can block a site if it “causes annoyance”. Safe to say that this blog, Kafila, can count its days.
Thanks, Nikhil, for the info.
Update 1: It’s ironical that this news comes today because even as I type, not far from these Orwellian Ministries there’s a workshop taking place at the Constitution Club on the “Role of the Internet in Fostering Freedom of Expression and Strengthening Activism in India“. The workshop will end with a lecture at 6 pm by Mr Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Update 2: What does CERT-IN do? Here’s CERT-IN director Gulshan Rai in his own words.
Update 3 at 7 pm IST: Mr Gulshan Rai has improved his response time considerably. Typepad and Mobango are back, but ClickATell is showing Error 404. Anyway, who doesn’t want a bulk SMS site blocked, eh? I’d still like to know which blog on Typepad they were trying to block.
Update 5: It seems the blocking was first reported by Soumyadip C at Cuttingthechai.com. He mentions four sites: Typepad, Mobango, Clickatell and Kirtu.com. Kirtu was a mirror for Savitabhabhi.com, which was blocked in 2009. Update 5.1: Soumyadip says he noticed Typepad blocked at least a week before 22 February.
Update 6: The Clickatell blocking was noticed by Tarun Dua on 24 February. And here’s a Typepad user who noticed it on 24 Feb. So this round of silly internet blocking lasted ten days. Mr Gulshan Rai has improved upon his previous record. Congratulations, Sir.
Update 7: Someone on Twitter says a site called Zone-h.org is also blocked. Am unable to open it – user time out error. Zone-H has as its tag-line “Unrestricted Information” that surely raised the hackles of the CERT-IN babus. Zone-H seems to be a website about cybercrime, hacking, website defacement etc., and may have been blocked because it had mirrors of website hacking (apparently) by crazy Indians and Pakistanis. Zone-H may have been blocked “ages” ago, though. Update 7.1: Nikhil at Medianama points to this report which says the blocking of Zone-H in India is the result of a commercial dispute. In the comments below, Apar points out the blocking of Zone-H in 2009 was the result of a court order.
Update 8: A report on IBNLive.com dated 12 February says Blogspot was inaccessible on Airtel for a while though the ISP denied there was any problem. The article has a later update, presumably made the same day, saying the problem was resolved. However, at least one blogger reported on 19 February having seen the DoT notice that day while trying to access Blogspot.com, and the problem had lasted quite a few days, according to him.
Update 9: Clickatell had figured in the picture in 2006 as well, though it is not clear whether or not it was actually blocked in 2006. However, back then I had written to Clickatell asking them about it and had received an interesting response, which I’m pasting in the comments of this post. Update 9.1: While some users had found Clickatell to be blocked in 2006, the responses by the DoT to Right to Information applications had not listed it as one of the sites blocked.
Update 10: This post suggests Mobango has been blocked and unblocked quite a few times since November 2010. No one knows why Mobango is being targeted but it seems the Mobango people might; on Medianama they’re quoted as saying that they’re talking to the authorities.