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Internet censorship in India has a long, murky past
Shivam Vij  11th Dec 2011

Illustration: Dev Kabir Malik Design

uring the Kargil war in 1999, VSNL, then the foremost Internet service provider (ISP), blocked the website of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, although there were no public or written instructions about it. That was the first case of Internet censorship in India. Since then, it has only grown and the government has by now become blasé about it. The Parliament passed the IT Act only in 2000, but the Act did not explicitly give the government powers to block websites.

Under the Act, they created a body called the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), whose job is to safeguard India's cyber-security (hacking, malware attacks, etc.). A look at the CERT-In website suggests it is doing that job pretty well, but the website gives you no hint of its additional role: censorship, codified in babuspeak as "balanced flow of information".

Also this year, the government added rules to an amended IT Act that made “intermediaries” liable for the content—so Facebook can be hauled up for what you post there, or you can be hauled up for a comment someone else writes on your blog.

CERT-In only became operational in 2003, and its first stint with censorship came within two months. Acting on CERT-In recommendations, the government asked all ISPs to block the Yahoo! Groups webpage of a Khasi militant group called the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council. It wasn't even a separatist outfit, only one wanting to turn Meghalaya into an exclusively Khasi state, but it had ties with Naga separatists. Their mailing list, called Kynhun, had only 82 members and 33 messages in its archives and there was nothing in these messages that incited violence or even separatism. ISPs ended up completely blocking Yahoo! Groups, then the most popular mailing list solution, affecting thousands of users. The resulting uproar meant we got to know about the Kynhun group. Now its membership grew, with people using 'anonymiser' websites to bypass the blockade, and the group got the publicity it would have liked.

This episode was repeated at a larger, more comic scale in 2006, when on a June weekend people found they could not access any website that ended with, because the then most popular blogging service, Google-owned Blogger, had been blocked. By the following Monday, a mailing list of Indian bloggers had come about, which brainstormed on what to do. On Monday morning, I kept calling CERT-In to confirm if there was a blocking. An irritated Gulshan Rai, CERT-In's technocrat chief, finally came on the line and made light of the matter by saying, "Somebody must have blocked some sites. What is your problem?" It was only when the uproar reached The New York Times and the Indian embassy in Washington informed Delhi of the international embarrassment, that Rai reminded ISPs not to block blogspot as a whole, but only the blogs that they had been asked to. A right to information (RTI) application revealed that 26-odd websites had been blocked, most of them harmless unknown sites, like a defunct blog of an American teenager who called herself Princess Kimberly and ranted against Islam. One site was spelt incorrectly.

The RTI application also revealed that this had been done under a Gazette notification that gave the government power to block sites. From 2007 onwards, there were several cases of India asking the social networking site Orkut to take down allegedly "defamatory" pages, one such was about Bal Thackeray. Quite a few Orkut pages were taken down by court orders.

Meanwhile, the blocking of websites has continued, clandestinely, as the government does not publicise its orders to block websites. If you go to a blocked site, it will not tell you that it is blocked on government orders, as it does in China or Saudi Arabia. It will say Page Not Found!

In 2009, the government blocked a very popular cartoon porn website, Its Marathi NRI owner came out in protest, thus coming out of his anonymity, but decided not to pursue a campaign because it became embarrassing for him before his family.

In 2011, the government blocked sites like Typepad, Mobango and Clickatell, but the ban was soon lifted. What were they trying to do? We don't know; Rai refuses to speak to the press or be accountable to the people of India. In July, court orders blocked a few file-sharing sites to prevent piracy of the film Singham.

Also this year, the government added rules to an amended IT Act that made "intermediaries" liable for the content—so Facebook can be hauled up for what you post there, or you can be hauled up for a comment someone else writes on your blog. This move is to force websites to censor so the government doesn't have to directly dirty its hands. Now anyone can lodge a complaint asking for any content to be taken down.

Most worryingly, Google revealed for the first time in 2010 how much content governments ask it to remove. India is quite far up the list; between January and June 2011, for instance, 70% of the hundreds of requests were about government criticism, including blogs and YouTube videos that criticise chief ministers.

Last week, The New York Times revealed that the Minister for IT Kapil Sibal summoned executives from Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google and Facebook to his office, showing them, amongst other things, a Facebook page critical of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and urging them to evolve a mechanism to delete such content. When it became a controversy, he refused to backtrack, saying he was trying to prevent religious sentiments from getting hurt.

Be afraid, very afraid, of what's ahead.

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