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Indian Bloggers, 1, ISPs, 0

According to DNA India, the blanket block on some blogging services has been lifted. Evidently the Department of Telecommunications is now asking ISPs to explain why they overblocked so many sites, rather than blocking just the sites specified. One of the authors of the (offensive, obnoxious) Jawa Report has written to BoingBoing, asking them to clarify that the Indian blog block is NOT over – that his site is still being blocked, as are the sites specifically listed in the DOT request to ISPs.

He’s right. That India is blocking any sites is disappointing. I’d like to see all governments – my own included – block only as an absolute last resort, and as a way to prevent access to content that’s clearly illegal, like child pornography. And I think it’s critical that governments who do block the Internet do so in a way that’s transparent, posting a page that makes it clear that a site has been blocked, offering an appeals process and makng it clear that the page isn’t inaccessible due to technical errors. (Oddly enough, the Saudi practice for blocking prohibited content is near ideal on these criteria, and vastly better than blocking blindly, as Indian ISPs did.) As Neha and Atanu pointed out in the quotes I blogged yesterday, blocking blogs is a slippery slope. Blocking opaquely makes it even more slippery.

Some have argued that bloggers who picked up the Indian block story – including yours truly – were irresponsibly trying to overplay the story to “increase circulation”. (Since I don’t sell ads and pay for my server space and bandwidth, increasing circulation can be a bad thing for me…) I’d argue that the fact the block was reversed so quickly reflects that the Indian blogosphere was extremely successful in making their voices heard and correcting a foolish error. Let’s hope bloggers can now influence policy as well and convince authorities that blocking any sites opaquely is a poor idea.

Blocking online speech can serve as a rallying point… but it doesn’t always have the effect we might hope for. Pakistan’s block is still in effect, and many prominent blogs in Ethiopia – as well as Blogspot as a whole – are unreachable. Efforts in those countries haven’t been successful yet.

Zimpundit points out that the situation in Zimbabwe may be even more disturbing. While the government isn’t blocking blogs, new legislation makes it possible for the government to intercept electronic commuications. This is having a chilling effect on the Zimbabwean blogosphere, as he notes on Global Voices:

mbabwe’s blogosphere has virtually been deflated by threats of new legislation allowing government to surreptitiously spy on people’s cyber activities. Their numerous voices have been silenced leaving a marked void in the chronicling of the one the world’s worst crises. Please keep this troubled nation’s valiant bloggers in your minds and prayers.

In the same way that folks like Dr. Awab Alvi helped his Indian blogger compatriots overcome their block, let’s hope that people who were concerned about the block in India can help call attention to the situations in Pakistan, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe as well.

6 thoughts on “Indian Bloggers, 1, ISPs, 0”

  1. Great post Ethan. The blocking of sites is a very important issue that needs to be addressed by bloggers as a collective. Unless we all speak up, things will progress from bad to worse. A lot of governments in one form or another are practicing unjust authoritarian control on blogging voices.

    For starters, I would recommend that all bloggers, please sign up (if you haven’t already) and show your support for the Amnesty International campaign’s for free speech. Go to: http://irrepressible.info/

  2. Although Saudi Arabia supposedly have a clear blocking policy, but what is going on in practice is very different. There are a lot of websites that are blocked for no good/clear reason, and the requests for these sites to be unblocked have gone unheard so far, including BoingBoing. More examples for foolish blocking include Wikipedia (English), photos hosting services such as Flickr, PhotoBucket, etc, uploading services such as MegaUpload, RapidShare, etc, and the list can go on and on.

    When they blocked my blog last week, it was not enough to fill the unblocking request form. They did not unblock it until a fellow blogger visited them and asked them to unblock it. When he asked why the blog was blocked in the first place, they told him it was blocked by mistake. I wonder if all the websites mentioned above are also blocked by mistake, but I don’t think so.

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  4. “I’d like to see all governments – my own included – block only as an absolute last resort, and as a way to prevent access to content that’s clearly illegal, like child pornography.”

    Let me play the libertarian devil’s advocate here: What if I said I’d rather not see ANY government blocking ANY content?

    Child pornography can be eradicated by shutting down the producers of it, since what’s fundamentally objectionable about it is the exploitation of children, who are not consenting adults, in the production of it, not necessarily the fact that it’s pornographic.

    The fundamental crime in a “snuff” film is the murder it documents.

    (Should we ban the remake of Kubrick’s “Lolita,” in which an adult actress mimes having sexual intercourse with Humbert Humbert in the role of an underage girl? Should we ban even the fictional expression of the very idea that adults can, and do, sexually exploit children?)

    One need only recall the Dept. of Justice’s assault on Google last year to see why this is a bad idea.

    When Google refused to hand over proprietary data for mining by the DoJ, the DoJ threatened it with retaliatory prosecution for aiding and abetting distribution of child porn.

    (A state prosecutor in Brazil took exactly the same tack against Google’s Orkut, in a effort to force it to police alleged criminal activity on the wildly popular social network.)

    Later, however, according to a report by CNet, Atty. General Gonzales told Google lawyers privately that the real purpose of the data was for the war on terror, not the war on child porn.

    The war on terror itself is another example. Are we at war with terrorist ideas or terrorist actions?

    Personally, as a New Yorker who used to work in the North Tower of the WTC, I’m perfectly happy to have people express Salafist ideas so long as they don’t commit acts of violence against civilians in the name of those ideas.

    In fact, I’d prefer it. Let’s game out the war of ideas in an online forum before we start strapping dynamite to ourselves and loading up the howitzers.

    And it would certainly be more satisfying to my own Brooklyn instinct for justice to see perpetrators and planners like Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri targeted for what they did rather than seeing the focus shift to a war on “Islamist ideology.”

    I mean, I read Arabic-language jihadist Web sites fairly regularly myself. Does that make me a jihadist myself, or a jihadi fellow traveler?

    Google, by the way, already does exactly as you suggest: It notifies users that some search results have been removed to comply with local law. And yet its critics — including Berkman’s R. MacKinnon, appearing on a segment of the PBS News Hour, find that insufficient.

    Are you really suggesting now that you’ll accept a REASONABLE amount of state interference in the right of free expression?

    The way that Western financial news services accept prior restraint on their reporting on Chinese markets, for example, through censorship powers delegated to their local partners?

    What kind of advocate of “freedom” does that make you?

  5. I think you’re picking a large fight over a small turn of phrase, Colin. I tried to simplify my stance on free speech by compacting it into a single sentence, rather than writing multiple paragraphs. My position is this: governments shouldn’t block. If they do block – which they do, whether I like it or not – they should be transparent about those blocks and they should block content which is illegal under local laws. I’m using child pornography as something that is illegal under US law. In that sense, I am distinguishing a block against child porn from a block against political speech – the former is illegal under the blocking jurisdiction, while the latter is not.

    Your legal exegesis regarding the wronged party in the production of child pornography or snuff films is factually incorrect. Under Title 18 of the US Code, Section 2252A, “receiving” child pornography via means that include computer networks is illegal. While the sexual exploitation of a child is a crime, under US law, so is the receipt of the pornographic material. Because US jurisdiction does not stretch into other nations where such content may be legal, there is an argument to be made that the US could block such content. As I said previously, I would prefer that no blocking occur, but if blocking does occur, I draw a distinction between the blocking of content that is illegal and that which parties in power find politically undesirable.

    Moving on to your latter points: Rebecca MacKinnon and I are not, in fact, the same person. (I know we look alike.) She and I differ on many subjects, including the precise details of our stances on censorship in China. I believe that Google has taken a much more responsible stance than Yahoo!, for instance, and that showing transparency is a radical improvement over not being transparent. I would have preferred that Google not offer the Google.cn service, but I believe they deserve credit for acting more responsibly than competitors.

    “What kind of advocate of “freedom” does that make you?”

    A practical one, Colin. One who spends a lot of his time working with people under threat in repressive nations. One who recognizes that governments don’t always protect their citizens’ rights to speak and who works to ensure that those citizens can protect themselves. One who tries to help people work within the legal environment they live within, rather than in a theoretical libertarian utopia/dystopia. What kind of advocate are you?

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