Censorship does stay quiet in this country
nor does it achieve its objective.
Are we proving to be a fairly censorship-resistant society?
If recent experience is anything to go by the answer is both
yes and no. The Government often has to retreat with egg on
its face when it tries to get repressive, but it does not
give up trying. And the vocal opposition comes from a small,
media-promoted minority, while Indian society at large remains
passive. However, the bottom line is that India
has far less censorship than many other societies across the
world, and it offers very energetic resistance to each
attempt at silencing.
Take the recent attempt to censor documentaries being submitted
for the International Film Festival in Mumbai, “Miff2004”.
It was unprecedented, asking that Indian entries obtain a
censor certificate while refraining from applying that requirement
to foreign entries. The stipulation was aimed at keeping out
films on the Gujarat riots that would have embarrassed the
Government. It had documentary film makers up in antis, they
got a good press for the boycott by 175 film makers they announced,
and embarrassed, the Goveminent quickly withdrew the new requirement.
Then came the attempt at Internet censorship through the
blocking of a discussion group on the Web. It turned out to
be a clumsily executed affair because the Internet Service
Providers went beyond the targetted blocking they were asked
to do. And it achieved the opposite of what it set out to
do because it sent the curious rushing to a little-visited
discussion group. Despite being blocked, the page could be
accessed through an anonymizer site on the Net whose express
purpose is to allow people to circumvent blocks.
An organisation in Meghalaya which advocates seccession
had set up this group, and the request for blocking it came
from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The incident
served to advertise that the Government has now got its act
together on the issue of blocking websites. There is a procedure
in place, with a single authority which will issue instructions.
There is a specified list of individuals and organisations
from whom the request can come, and a chain of command thereafter.
The single authority notified for the purpose is the Computer
Emergency Response Team (Cert-In), which was created about
a year ago, primarily to promote security in cyberspace for
government organisations as well as private sector websites.
This is its first brush with publicity and it is mortified
that it is negative. It sees the blocking chore as a small,
peripheral part of its work, which involves issuing advisories
on security preparedness, and responding to emergency incidents
in cyberspace involving hacking or major virus attacks.
The chain of command is that officials from the rank of
joint secretary upwards in specified departments and ministries
can request Cert-In to block a site, and the latter has to
satisfy itself that a complaint is authentic and the action
essential. Then it tells the Department of Telecommunications
(DoT) to block the website, which in turn issues instructions
to all the Internet service providers in the country.
Had the latter quietly blocked this one discussion group,
nobody might have noticed. But they had never received such
a request before and three of them (Mahanagar Telephone Nigam
Limited, Data Access and Sify) wrote back immediately to DoT
to say that since their infrastructure made it technically
impossible to block just one group they had (“as per your
directive”) blocked all of Yahoo Groups, thousands of them.
Eager compliance that triggered howls of protests, mostly
on the Net. Internet service providers (ISP) after all, are
more concerned about not losing their ilcences than about
protecting free speech. (For instance, the Videsh Sanchar
Nigam Limited (VSNL) took a day-and-a-half to figure out the
precise modification that would be required for the proxy
server based server settings for that page.)
Censorship does stay quiet in this country, which is a great
thing. Nor does it achieve its objective. See what this attempt
did for Kynhun.BriU Hynniewtrep, the Meghalaya discussion
group, seeking a separate state for the Khasis. Its membership
grew from 25 or so before the censorship, to 214 after it.
The year-old group had meandered along unnoticed, with an
average of three postings a month. Post ban, it got 23 in
Last week the Department of Information Technology summoned
the ISPs for a meeting to ask them to make sure that they
would not goof up similarly in the future. It said it wanted
to see that harrassment to Net users was reduced. Meanwhile
a debate has erupted in the press over whether the sections
of the IT Act, being cited, actually empower an organisation
like Cert-in to impose censorship by blocking. They don’t.
But the Government claims inherent powers. Though protest
has subsided, the ban on all Yahoo groups continues in some
ISPs at the time of writing. BSNL for one, was continuing
to block all Yahoo groups. Media vigilance on this issue needs
to be revived.
One suspects that Cert-in will be more squeamish about compliance
the next time it gets a request to block a site. As it is,
this is the first of about 10 blocking requests that it has
complied with. Not out of a desire to resist blocking: the
others either did not come from the parties specified in the
gazette notification, or they concerned cyber squatting, which
does not fall within its domain. And the Government needs
to review what is the most effective response to rogue sites:
there is plenty of advice on this on the Net.
Despite some potentially harsh provisions in the Information
Technology Act, 2000, India has not see much Internet surveillance
or censorship compared to other countries which require ISPs
to restrict access to certain kinds of content. "Silenced",
a new report on Internet censorship, is illuminating for
what it tells you about censorship elsewhere. Australia requires
Internet service providers by law to block access to material
deemed harmful to minors. That includes not just pornography,
but also information relating to crime, violence and drugs.
In Myanmar it is illegal to own a modem without a licence.
Internet access there is restricted to 800 specified international
sites, and a few local ones. The United States, some countries
in Europe, China, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa all practice
a greater degree of Internet surveillance and/or censorship
than India does, though American courts keep striking down
restrictive laws that the U.S. Government comes up with.
Our government may well aspire to compete. But vigilant
Net users, an abundance of sensation-seeking media and government
sensitivity to criticism will hopefully ensure that we will
never be as efficient in our censorship as more organised