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Are Internet Service Providers blocking blogs?

By Shivam Vij
July 17, 2006 19:25 IST
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Bloggers in India are getting together to protest against the sudden blocking of popular Google-owned blog-hosting site Blogger by some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Spectranet, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), Reliance Powersurfer, Airtel Broadband and Sify.

On July 15, Mridula Dwivedi, a teacher of management studies in Gurgaon first discovered that visiting any blogspot blog -- such as, say Mumbai Help -- returned the message, 'Site Blocked!' Her ISP, Spectranet, confirmed they had blocked some sites based on government directives.

J Grewal, Spectranet's Delhi representative at the National Internet exchange of India, told this reporter that, on July 15, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had sent ISPs a list of sites to be blocked. R H Sharma, senior engineer with MTNL, said the list ran into some 22 pages.

Now, several bloggers have organised themselves into a Bloggers' Collective and are planning to file a Right To Information application to obtain the list.

Anil Saxena of Spectranet confirmed that the list sent by the DoT contained names of particular blogs, but added that Blogspot as a whole had not been blocked. This is contrary to the experience of customers like Dwivedi, who are still unable to view sites hosted on Blogspot, in addition to those on Typepad and Yahoo!'s Geocities. "The list is confidential and I can't make it public," said Saxena.

Under the Information Technology Act, 2000, a body called the Computer Emergency Response Team, or CERT-IN, was created along the lines of similar authorities the world over. Although its main task is in the domain of Internet security, it also oversees Internet censorship under a clause that seeks to ensure 'balanced flow of information.' Any government department seeking a block on any web site has to approach CERT-IN, which then instructs the DoT to block the site after confirming the authenticity of the complaint.

Web sites can be blocked if they contain pornography, speeches of hate, contempt, slander or defamation, or if they promote gambling, racism, violence or terrorism.

"Such sites may be blocked within the provisions of the Fundamental Right to free speech and expression, granted in India's Constitution," said cyber-law expert Praveen Dalal, adding, "If, however, the blocking is arbitrary, unreasonable and unfair, it would be in violation of Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India."

The trouble is bloggers don't even know which sites the DoT wants blocked. To make matters worse, ISPs seem to be blocking entire domains on which these blogs are hosted.

In 2003, one of the first things CERT-IN did was to approve the blocking of an obscure mailing list run by a banned militant outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) of the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. Ironically, the popularity and visibility of the list went up by leaps and bounds, despite it being blocked by all ISPs. Many could still see the list via email or proxy surfing.

This time, something similar seems to have happened, to not one but three domains. However, CERT-IN's Director, Dr Gulshan Rai, said he was unaware of the problem and would not be able to respond "off-hand". In a telephone interview, he told this reporter, "Somebody must have blocked some sites. What is your problem?"

Bloggers certainly think of it as a problem though, and are all set to react.

-- The reporter blogs at National Highway.

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Shivam Vij