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Updated: Crazy internet censorship time in India, again

March 4, 2011

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 4: It seems the Typepad blockade happened on 27 or 28 February. Here’s a post dated 28 February, and The Hindu reports 27 February.

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.

 

SEE ALSO: Get Ready for India’s Blogger Control Act


 

31 Comments leave one →
  1. Tina permalink
    March 4, 2011 4:15 PM

    On MTNL mumbai,
    only http://www.typepad.com is blocked
    with no message
    just a 404 error

    BUT all other subdomains on typepad are accessible….
    they just blocked the main page

  2. voyeur permalink
    March 4, 2011 4:23 PM

    Sir, I would like to point out that this is not the first time a blocked website is acknowledging that it is blocked because the government said so. A few years ago when Savita Bhabhi (savitabhabhi.com was the old site which got blocked, the new website is functioning without hindrance) was blocked the website said that it has been blocked by the govt.

  3. March 4, 2011 6:10 PM

    I’m glad to see that the Indian Government it taking pains to protect us from dangers we cannot possibly comprehend. Without a strict and surely infallible system of central censorship, how could we possibly navigate the hazardous landscape of free expression? Furthermore, the effectiveness with which the system blocks down on dissent definitely does NOT make the system look laughable or ridiculous.

  4. Charu Soni permalink
    March 4, 2011 8:12 PM

    CERT-IN is only a front that explains its existence in the name of internet security for banking and the like. Recently when Egypt was in turmoil Mubarak was helped by British-based Vodafone, which shut down Egypt’s phone and internet service. Then the American company called Narus (owned by Boeing) sold Egypt the surveillance technology that helped identify dissident voices. That’s how Ghonim was identified and put behind bars. Guess where the hub of Narus is? Bangalore. Boeing has 4 different subsidiary companies in India serving security and defence concerns of the government. You might have noticed that FB of late has also increased security measures asking for all sorts of details in the name of ‘privacy’. These details are sought in order to delete pseudonyms/ activists/ dissidents wanting anonymity. Google (which participated in the Delhi Fostering of Freedom Conference at Constitution Club etc) too is not above board. Asked why US Internet Freedom agenda is focussing on China and Iran and not others, Bob Boorstin, Director of Corporate and Policy Communication at Google and former US government official said, “US pays more attention to countries with nuclear weapons than to those that don’t”.

  5. March 4, 2011 8:30 PM

    @Shivam: The TypePad-block doesn’t seem to be operating here in Bengaluru. I tried both “typepad.com” and “blogname.typepad.com”, and they work for me here.

    Of course, it is possible for this to start somewhere, and then make its way across the country over a day or two. As you may recall, this is how it went the last time around, with the Blogspot-block. Here’s hoping it will blow over soon. Keep us posted.

    • March 4, 2011 11:23 PM

      Abi: see my last update on top of the post. They resolved the issue quickly for a change. Even so, the blockade had not reached small ISPs, and was yet to be implemented by MTNL in Delhi and Mumbai. There seems to be a trickle down effect, and Airtel seems to be the fastest in such compliance!

  6. March 5, 2011 1:12 AM

    In reference to my Update 9 in the post above, here’s the mail I got on 20 September 2006 from Clickatell:

    Dear Shivam Vij
    Thank you for your email asking for clarification regarding Clickatell
    and the recent news coverage regarding sites that have been blocked in
    India. The purpose of this letter is to correct the positioning of our
    company, and the inherent technology behind our products and services.
    It is imperative to stress that Clickatell is not a blog or blog
    publisher, and we would ask you to make this clear in any copy you
    publish. Clickatell is a global messaging provider (SMS, E-mail,
    Voicemail, etc.) servicing governments, businesses and communities
    around the world. We launched the first global SMS messaging service in
    2000 (PC-2-Mobile) that enables over 6,000 enterprises around the world
    (large and small) to deploy effective alert messaging, disaster
    recovery communication solutions, etc. The level of trust by our
    customers is best illustrated by the extent of our connectivity, with
    reliable coverage to 578 mobile networks on 192 countries. Most
    importantly, if our platform has been used by third parties to deliver
    unlawful messages, our own technology enables us to track down any
    offenders. We have strict terms and conditions including anti-spam
    policies and privacy policies.
    Our understanding from the Computer Emergency Response Team in India is
    that our website has not been blocked, but we are continuing to check
    this to ensure that none of our customers are having problems accessing
    their Clickatell accounts.
    Given the nature of recent tragic events this area of discussion is
    obviously very sensitive. I have attached a company profile for your
    information and if we can help any further in clarifying the nature of
    our business then please let us know, by email or phone. By the same
    token, please can you ensure that any copy for publication, if it needs
    to reference Clickatell, is absolutely clear about our products and
    services.
    We’d also be keen to highlight the positive services that SMS
    provides, including life-saving instant alert notification and business
    continuity in times of emergency, cost savings for logistic/delivery
    companies, collaboration efficiencies for large corporations around the
    world.
    I hope that answers some of your questions. Please do not hesitate to
    contact me for any additional clarification.
    Kind regards
    Vanessa Clark
    Marketing manager

  7. March 5, 2011 1:47 AM

    And back in 2006, Devangshu Dutta had explained on a mailing list why the government probably wants Clickatell blocked:

    Actually clickatell is one of the few sites, maybe the only one, which
    does make sense to block from the security angle .
    It’s extremely difficult to track an sms sent via clickatell visavis a
    standard cellphone to cellphone sms.
    You may (I emphasise “may”) be able to intercept and read the msg but
    you cannot locate the chap sending it.
    It is ideal for a terrorist to coordinate an op. Even the sender’s
    actual IP is masked. The only issue is the delay in msg delivery but
    that can be worked around.
    If you were a cop tracking “sensitive” cellphones, this would drive you
    nuts.

  8. March 5, 2011 8:44 AM

    I unable to understand this block, perhaps because this time around (as opposed to ’06) I have not seen it at all. These various sites have been visible to me ever since I first heard of the block. So why the selective implementation of any order? Are some ISPs unwilling to toe the line? Or did they not get the order? Or was it some over-zealous govt functionary trying to implement something that had not been fully thought out in govt circles yet?

    The point is, ham-handed implementation intrigues me, even more than a full-fledged implementation would (the latter would annoy me, of course). Why like this?

  9. March 5, 2011 5:01 PM

    Hi Shivam,

    Zone-H was blocked by a judicial order passed by the Hon’ble Delhi High Court in CS(OS) 2305/2009 on 04.12.2009. The order was passed ex-parte on allegations of defamation by an Indian Party (E2labs). I have written on this before you can check it out here – http://www.iltb.net/2010/04/the-utilitarian-critique-of-e-2-labs-v-zone-h/

  10. March 5, 2011 7:29 PM

    http://typepad.com/ works once more on my Airtel DSL.

    Interestingly clickatell.com returns a 404 which suspiciously comes
    from the same Xitami server as the earlier DoT message.

    Server Xitami
    Content-Length 29
    Content-Type text/html; charset=UTF-8

    http://mobango.com/ opens up just fine too.

    http://zone-h.org/
    returns the same :-
    Response Headers
    Server Xitami
    Content-Length 29
    Content-Type text/html; charset=UTF-8

    So the ISPs have decided to just return an innocuous sounding 404
    instead of the earlier message about DoT.

  11. March 6, 2011 3:40 PM

    The site opens on mtnl connections….

  12. March 9, 2011 10:53 PM

    I think, all of us bloggers need public profiles that are fairly similar and thus easy to find and follow on another platform if one gets blocked. I also think that there needs to be more chatter among bloggers on this subject. A solidarity. One site getting blocked should immediately result in fairly easy to find info on how to get around the block. Content should be cross-quoted liberally – might involve coordinating with other bloggers to ensure that many of us comment on important subjects that are likely to get blocked. Might be interesting to explore the possibility of an automatic mirror archive or something that we can switch to if we get errors.

    In other words, silencing us may be their choice, but there is nothing in the act that says we must help them silence us.

    For the record, if the government is reading this:

    This is a really stupid idea. What’s worse is that the bloggers are far more techno-savvy than you guys. You are only going to end up looking more stupid than usual.

  13. March 9, 2011 10:59 PM

    What is it? Our government is feeling left out of all the revolutions blowing across the world? Or is it that after Wikileaks and the US response they have an inferiority complex about not being “democratic” enough about dissent?

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