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Block & Lock Brigade

Thanks to a John Doe order by the Madras High Court, ISPs across India blocked many popular file-sharing websites last week. In an age when information is ubiquitous, this blanket ban reveals a draconian IT law that is fast eroding users’ right to express themselves, says Nikhil Pahwa.

Nikhil Pahwa  27th May 2012

Illustration by Dev Kabir Malik Design

he list, seemingly, is endless, and includes some of the Internet's most popular names: DailyMotion, Vimeo, Xmarks, Pastebin, Clickatell, Megaupload, ThePirateBay, Isohunt, Typepad, Mobango, MediaFire, Sendspace. All of these are among sites that have been blocked at least once in the last year by one of India's Internet Service Providers. The websites are of all kinds, though commonalities can be found: most of them are file sharing sites of one form or the other, some are video upload sites, one a blogging network, a mobile applications marketplace, and one a site that people use to share code or messages.

To give you some context, Vimeo is a video sharing site, much like YouTube, which hosts user generated content – my friends' wedding video, another friend's acting debut, another one's only short film, down to a documentary I love called Everything is a Remix. ThePirateBay, notorious in some media representations, is the file sharing website that the author Paulo Coelho recently put his books up for free download, calling himself "Pirate Coelho". Sendspace was where, last year, I was able to upload a zip file with hundreds of vacation photos to share with a friend.

The recent spate of blocks are due to a generic "John Doe" order from the Madras High Court that allows the producers of the film Dhammu and 3 (of Kolaveri-Di-on-YouTube fame) to ask ISPs to block any websites they feel are promoting piracy. It is tied to a multi-movie John Doe order from Reliance Entertainment.

Why this works is that many ISPs, in my opinion, are spineless cowards: instead of protecting the access rights of their customers, and questioning and challenging a notice from a film producer to block websites, they block all the websites to protect themselves (remember that court orders do not mention a specific website). It's much easier for them to cite the court order and pass the buck on to the movie producer and the courts, or to blame the Department of Telecom (sometimes even without there being an order from the department).

‘They can’t stop us from accessing information’PAWANPREET KAUR

Above all, however, it is a decision that is driven by commercial considerations – ISPs have nothing to lose if all of them block websites. It is also unlikely that any ISP will break rank and uphold consumer interest because competition in the ISP business is so abysmally poor – India has less than 14 million broadband connections, and a policy change in 2007 led to a consolidation (and possible cartelisation) in the ISP business. I can't think of a single Indian ISP which hasn't ever blocked a website, or publicly spoken out against blocks.

The worrying thing is that it is only going to get worse: Reliance Entertainment, which was the first to use these John Doe orders for the movie Singham, now appears to have one which covers multiple films and any site it wishes, blocked. In addition to this, a motion to get the draconian Information Technology Rules 2011 (IT Rules 2011) annulled was defeated in the Rajya Sabha recently, and this means that ISPs and websites will now continue to entertain often frivolous complaints, as a research from the Centre for Internet and Society has shown.

At times, entire websites like CartoonsAgainstCorruption will be blocked, and in other cases, groups on Facebook will be removed, articles on news sites will be taken down, and you'll probably never realise it, but comments on articles will mysteriously vanish; some website will just not load, and you'll assume it is a problem with your Internet connection.

All of this impacts freedom of speech and the culture of sharing of information. Remember that we still don't know why Blogger was blocked in 2006, or Typepad was blocked last year.

o what needs to change? First, the courts need to consider the misuse of their John Doe orders by entertainment companies before issuing any more orders and, at worst, issue orders for blocking specific links where infringement of copyright is taking place. The Internet is not some cablewallah showing a film without permission, and we need specificity where a medium of free speech is concerned. Second, we need ISPs to protect its customers' rights and offer more specific disclosures to their customers about their actions. Third, we need customers to demand more of their ISPs: commercial considerations often rule supreme, and users should consider switching to ISPs which haven't blocked their favourite website. Fourth: consumer organisations should become more active in protesting against Internet censorship and arbitrary blocks – with the line between Internet and the mobile Internet blurring, access to information is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. The amount of knowledge available online in Indian languages is increasing, and the Internet should no longer be seen as an elitist medium. Fifth: at a policy level, we need changes in the IT Rules 2011, for TRAI to look deeper into consumer interests, and also for them to foster more competition among ISPs.

Above all, the suspicious veil of secrecy around all blocks needs to be lifted – we shouldn't need the media or RTI requests to find out why sites are blocked and who has got them blocked. We just need to know, otherwise, we'll find that bit by bit, our access to information is increasingly being curtailed. This at a time when the Internet and its treasure trove of knowledge is yet to reach and empower most of our country's citizens.

If there is transparency, there will be greater accountability. Or so we hope.

Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin on Twitter) is the Editor & Publisher of MediaNama.com, a digital industry news site.

 
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