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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 four days.

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 societies are.

Copyright © 2007 Jishi Samuel