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Thoughts and disagreements over India’s blog block

My commentary on India’s unfortunate block of blogging sites was amplified on Robert Scoble’s blog, where the juxtaposition of India with China, Pakistan and Ethiopia angered some commenters. My point of juxtaposing those countries together was to express my surprise and dismay that India – the world’s largest democracy – would respond to controversial speech online by preventing citizens from encountering it. India has a large and thriving blogosphere, one that has established itself as an effective press critic, a force for fact-checking, a space for dialog between Indians living in the diaspora and on the subcontinent, and as an effective tool for distributed relief and charitable efforts. My point, as Desipundit noted, was to express my sadness that Indian bloggers were denied access to a tool they’ve used so effectively.

My post seemed to especially anger Angsuman Chakraborty, who responded to it with a comment on my blog and a post on his own blog. In his comment, he suggests that the block was in response to the tragic Mumbai train bombings:

“I think you totally miss the point. It isn’t about freedom of speech. Certain blogspot blogs were used as communication tool by terrorists to mastermind the Mumbai attacks which killed several hundreds of people using RDX. Indian government asked a handful of sites to be blocked. However ISP’s chose the easy way and blocked the whole domain – blogspot.com.”

The second part of the comment is correct – Indian ISPs were instructed to block a small number of sites and overreacted, blocking the IP addresses of those sites, which prevented access to all blogspot blogs, rather than just the ones they’d been instructed to block. While many commentators – myself included – believed the blocks were in reaction to the Mumbai train attacks, that’s proven not to be true.

A letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh includes an apparent explanation of the block:

In an explanation provided to the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) today, the deputy consul general in New York, A.R. Ghanashyam, said that the ban was initiated by India’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). He said the order intended to ban two Web pages “containing extremely derogatory references to Islam and the holy prophet, which had the potential to inflame religious sensitivities in India and create serious law and order problems.” CERT is a unit of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology that deals with computer security issues.

“Because of a technological error,” Ghanashyam said, “the Internet providers went beyond what was expected of them, which in turn resulted in the unfortunate blocking of all blogs.”

This echoes observations made by Indian bloggers exploring the phenomenon that the list of blocked blogs appears to include a number of Hindu nationalist sites as well as sites critical or insulting of Islam. A number of sites run by US bloggers appear on the blocked list – most appear to be connected to the “Flush the Koran” page, an especially juvenile site put together by the authors of “The Jawa Report”, which seems to specialize in the sort of Muslim bashing popular on fringes of the American right wing.

While these aren’t sites I’m particularly happy exist (you’ll note that I’ve used the rel=”nofollow” tag when linking to those last two sites…), I feel strongly that preventing people from seeing those sites is the wrong strategy in trying to reduce religious tension in India. Preventing people from accessing information or opinions – no matter how stupid, juvenile and offensive they may be – makes that information more important than it should be. The Danish cartoons – which I also thought were juvenile, offensive and unnecesarily provocative – gained an audience thousands of times greater than the audience that would have seen them by virtue of being condemned and banned. The best way to deal with offensive crap like this isn’t to hide it – it’s to let people see it, make their judgements about it, and, for the most part, ignore it.

Contrary to Chakraborty’s assertion in my comments that “…no most Indian blogger’s aren’t worried at all. They have proxies if they are desperate to read any blogspot blogs,” several of the bloggers I read regularly are deeply upset about the situation. Atanu Dey connects the challenge to free speech to other concerns he has about Indian politics.

It is remarkable that even so late in the day the clueless retards that dictate policy have not figured out that India is a so-called democracy and that the first pre-requisite of giving people a vote is that they be competent and if they are competent enough to vote, then they should be competent enough to exercise their freedom of expression. The schizophrenic attitude—treating citizens as if they are incompetent idiots on the one hand, while handing them the “vote”—is inexplicable at first glance.

Then one realizes that it makes sense in the context of Indian democracy. The voters are uninformed and their uninformed vote is what keeps the retards in power. If the voters were to ever become informed, they would vote the retards (sorry for repeating that word, but it is the most appropriate) out of power.

What else can I say except that if your government decides what you are allowed to read and what you are allowed to say, then you might be a Third World country.

Neha Viswanathan is especially concerned that the Department of Telecommunication has asserted a right to block access to content in the future, and to do so in a way that’s not transparent and doesn’t leave a mechanism to challenge the block:

Anyone who says that this is not a matter of cyber-censorship is clearly missing the point that the DoT thinks they have the right to block any website online. And apparently these orders go out from time to time. (Here’s to those who said this has never happened before.) Blocking one page maybe like taking away a drop from the ocean. However, regardless of how much water you took away – it is the act of taking away that is in question.

Andrew Lih, watching the situation from China, has a hopeful observation – the notion that solidary around issues of online free speech can bridge existing divides of national identity. He reprints a letter from Dr. Awab Alvi, a Pakistani dentist and blogger who co-leads the Don’t Block the Blog Campaign, sent to the Bloggers Collective, a group of (mostly) Indian bloggers working to document and fight the block within India. The letter points Indian bloggers to a useful script used by Pakistani bloggers to evade the block in their country. Dr. Alvi closes his letter:

We share all these as a gift to build better friends across the border and hope to shed the image of hatred and violence and give way to a peaceful co-existence between to lovely nations.

Amen to that.

17 thoughts on “Thoughts and disagreements over India’s blog block”

  1. > especially anger Angsuman Chakraborty

    Anger is probably too strong a word to describe my emotions at that time. I did however feel involved for four reasons.

    First was overlooking the fact that it was only few contentious sites which were instructed to be blocked and not the whole of blogspot. With widespread availability of proxies no hell was going to break loose. There is a different angle to this which is free speech issue which I will address later.

    Second was equating India with China, Pakistan or Ethiopia. With all her faults I think India has much better record at maintaining human rights of citizens. Even that didn’t bother me much as much as comparison with Pakistan, a country whose leaders have been continuously supporting terrorist activities in India for decades. The wound of Mumbai blasts is way too raw still.

    The third reason is something more personal. During last US elections lots of American’s were not in favor of Bush coming to power. They lost and apologized to the world and said they tried. In short often you may not agree with the government of your country and its policies. There are many American’s who don’t like Bush. They realize Bush’s policies are not often in sync with the ethos and passion of America as they have come to know and believe.
    Similarly there are many in India who don’t like the current Indian government lead by Mrs. Sonia Maino. And yet they are helpless to do much about it. India is very dear to them. They realize the government’s policies are often against the basic values of what they have come to know and love about India. Hence equating India with the current Indian government is very painful to them. To many an outsider, Bush represents America, not to me as I have stayed there for a long period and love the country as my second home. Similarly to outsider’s Indian government does represent India. To us it is rather painful to see them equated.

    And fourthly it was my understanding at that time from media reports and other blogs that the cause of block was certain sites which allowed terrorist communications. Despite my disagreements I would strongly support any measure which deter terrorists not only in India but anywhere in the world.

    > While many commentators – myself included – believed the blocks were in reaction to the Mumbai train attacks, that’s proven not to be true.

    Same here. In fact the initial media reports indicated the same. As it turned out Indian government was blocking some anti-muslim and some pro-Hindu sites and some sites with no content when I viewed.

    In the current scenario I find no justification of the block at all. If there can be riot in any community merely because some website flushes some scripture then such people first needs to be educated and the government. So I posted an article today on how to easily defeat website access ban, specifically with India in mind. To reiterate the given cause for ban is totally unjustified and needs to be repelled.

    > We share all these as a gift to build better friends across the border and hope to shed the image of hatred and violence and give way to a peaceful co-existence between to lovely nations.

    I agree.

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  3. Thanks for continuing the conversation, Angsuman. It sounds like we’re closer to agreement than either of us probably thought at the beginning of the conversation. Your comment about supporting your country while disagreeing with your government is one that resonates for me, as I find myself strongly opposed to current US leadership.

    I also strongly agree that the best response to internet censorship is to help people find ways to defeat that censorship by using proxies, Tor or other circumvention strategies.

    I am, and remain, an enthusiastic admirer of India and her people, and hope that the Indian government will soon realize that this block is a mistake and reverse course.

  4. This is an ultimately useless policy, as we already recognize. Blocking two, three, four, or a hundred sites won’t stop the content from working its way into India. The sites will pop up elsewhere (and the Indian government will end up playing whack-a-mole ad nauseum), and/or people will find many ingenius ways to route around the blocks (see: China).

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  6. “During last US elections lots of American’s were not in favor of Bush coming to power.”

    “Similarly there are many in India who don’t like the current Indian government lead by Mrs. Sonia Maino.”

    The world is getting more polarized, but the “lot/many” doesn’t equate with majority.

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  8. The best way to deal with offensive crap like this isn’t to hide it – it’s to let people see it, make their judgements about it, and, for the most part, ignore it.

    If that is the case, why not make it legal for everyone to carry guns and weapons and board aircrafts with them (last I heard, even scissors were not allowed on airplanes!) – let people make judements, and for most part ignore it! Do you HONESTLY think it will work, or are you just making arguments to support your theory here?

  9. I don’t think I accept the analogy between weapons and words, Mihir. Are you suggesting that you’d like to start arresting and detaining people who use words you deem dangerous, in the same way we’d arrest someone who assaults someone else with a weapon? That sounds like something out of Orwell.

    I believe the best response to bad speech is more speech. I believe the best way to respond to people saying things hateful and stupid is to point out that those things are hateful and stupid. And I believe that hiding that speech gives it power that it otherwise wouldn’t have… which is extremely counterproductive.

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  11. Ethan –

    No, I sm not advocating that they are equivalent, but the U.S. government seems to do so.

    Doesn’t U.S. ban words and photos too. After the abu-ghraib prison photos, they banned cameras and cell phones with cameras (http://www.newmediamusings.com/blog/2004/05/us_bans_camera_.html).
    Isn’t that against freedom of speech?

    A majority of U.S. press bans live telecase of Al-Qaida tapes (http://english.people.com.cn/english/200110/11/eng20011011_82022.html).

    Are these bans bad? No – I think they are for a good purpose. It takes one bad apple to make a group of apples bad. If one person from a million watching these pictures or tapes become a al-qaeda sympathizer, that can have HUGE impact. I do not agree with that statement, that “for the most part” let people ignore it – its not enough.

    Online gambling ban bill, bill to ban burning of flag, etc are all in the talks. I support them wholly – words and expression are not always the best way to curb violence.

    Again, my views may be very biased, simply because I have lived through the riots that happened in Mumbai in early 90s. I have seen people die in front of my because they were of a certain community, and I am in favor of anything that an be done to avoid that.

  12. Thanks for the response, Mihir. The prohibitions you list within the US are, for the most part, bans on expression I disagree with. The ban on cameras within US military prison facilities is especially disturbing – without the terrible photos from Abu Ghraib, there would not have been pressure for the US to change how we are treating prisoners.

    I think our difference of opinion has to do with our various experiences. I didn’t live through the strife in Mumbai in the early 90s – I can understand how that experience would make you concerned about the power of incindiery speech. I tend to believe that speech that’s banned and hidden is even more powerful than that which is out in the open, but I can understand how your experience could shape your thinking.

    Thanks for engaging on the topic.

  13. Ethan,
    I do agree with you that anything that is forbidden or deemed unattainable becomes all the more desirable. Similarly, the propaganda regarding imposing a ban on the 17 blog sites can eventually be very counter productive and can heighten the interest and curiosity of people to access and read them at any cost. Well, again that’s the irony of it, considering the fact that the Indian Government decided to block only a few sites they felt would incite communal violence and hatred and perpetuate an already boiling political and human rights situation. Instead of imposing an outright ban in an attempt to curtail freedom of expression, the Government should resort to effective diplomatic and peace-keeping measures.
    Again, please understand that India is inherently a very tolerant country that has since time immemorial welcomed and housed a plethora of diverse religions, cultures and traditions, living upto the immortal Sanskrit saying “Athithi Devo Bhava” (Treat guests as equivalent to God ). Hence, it is only natural for people like Mihir, who has been a sad and helpless witness to many bomb blasts in Mumbai since the early 90’s to be angered and disturbed by the frequent communal tensions and terrorist blasts raving our nation. It is one thing to experience a lone terrorist attack and another, to feel horribly empty and helplessly broken by many more. Well, in whichever way we condemn/categorise/classify/term India’s anti-terrorist actions and measures, unfortunately the same sad facts are soon becoming a reality in this eternally tolerant nation – the brutal continuation of terror, silencing hundreds of innocent lives and maiming and disabling a thousand more. And, all for what???

  14. Hi,
    Ooops. It is obviously not ‘terrorist blasts raving our nation”, but ‘ravaging” our nation.
    By the way, equating India with nations such as China and Pakistan is totally unjustified. There might be political apathy and a fractured bureaucratic system in India, but, for that matter, is any nation perfect? In any case, there is absolutely no lack of freedom (except for very very rare ocassions such as the blogspot issue) or potential for growth in this country. India does not perpetuate cross border terrorism and does not rule her people with an iron hand. I am not blindly defending this nation, but the fact that one can breathe, laugh, love and live life freely in the Indian soil is true.

  15. You might note my opening comment, Gayathri – my point in comparing India with Pakistan and China was to suggest that, in this one narrow sense, India was making a decision more consistent with some more repressive nations. I understand the statement is very provocative to my Indian readers – it was intended to be so, because I, like many others around the world, was surprised and dismayed that India would choose to block content rather than debate about it.

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  17. Don’t know when Pak indo stress will end, their relation was very excellent in last year, may be there are some person who don’t want to see us in high spirits and they are creating troubles in our way, if you look at history everything is going fine they start local buses, business, exchanging other business and even sports, and now …?? Just think what should be duty of one individual it does not matter its Pakistan or Indian; everyone wants peace and fantastic life, I will request to all give don’t make it big issue, think about the result, may be then we will find any good way

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