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 isnâ€™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 ISPâ€™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 Indiaâ€™s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). He said the order intended to ban two Web pages â€œcontaining 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.â€ CERT is a unit of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology that deals with computer security issues.
â€œBecause of a technological error,â€ Ghanashyam said, â€œthe Internet providers went beyond what was expected of them, which in turn resulted in the unfortunate blocking of all blogs.â€
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 bloggerâ€™s arenâ€™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 attitudeâ€”treating citizens as if they are incompetent idiots on the one hand, while handing them the â€œvoteâ€â€”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. (Hereâ€™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.