Tuesday, Oct 21, 2003
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THE BLOCKING OF an internet discussion group of a little-known Meghalaya separatist organisation has exposed mindless official ineptitude. The Government of India's directive to all internet service providers (ISPs) in the country to block access to the Yahoo! discussion group of the Hunniewrtep National Liberation Council of Meghalaya has had all the negative consequences usually associated with bumbling censorship. It has drawn attention to an obscure separatist outfit and simultaneously blocked access to all discussion groups on Yahoo!. Ironically, at the end of it all, those keen on knowing what the Meghalaya separatists are discussing can very easily circumvent the Government ban.
The internet has become a public space for the expression of a plurality of views the likes of which cannot be seen in any other media. While the net is rightly celebrated for the "cyber-democracy" it fosters, the libertarian arguments about the need to protect an absolute freedom of expression on the internet are indefensible. The right to espouse child pornography or spew hate at particular communities cannot be defended. Governments do have a duty and a right to block or ban such web-sites, although internet technology is such that the authors of such sites are always a step ahead of the regulators. Bans on political groups are a different matter: there is always a temptation to use charges of sedition to justify a muzzling of dissent. The Indian Government has been relatively open when it comes to imposing political censorship on the net. But it is a mystery why it chose to pick on the discussion group of the Meghalaya separatists. The Lashkar-e-Taiba and the ULFA have discussion groups on Yahoo!, and so do fundamentalists of all hues. But none of them has attracted official attention. The Government action has seen membership of the Meghalaya web discussion list increase from 20 to over 300 within a fortnight. Few had heard earlier of the Hunniewrtep National Liberation Council of Meghalaya. The Government ban has bestowed on the separatists a degree of attention they could not have hoped for earlier. Moreover, it is easy to become a member of this particular internet group. It is also possible, using one of a huge number of "proxy" servers, to visit the Yahoo! web-site sought to be blocked. The ban has clearly been counter-productive.
The most unfortunate outcome is that the ISPs, in their haste to comply with the Government directive, have blocked access to all Yahoo! discussion groups. These lists are some of the most open fora of exchange on the internet. They cover a range of issues and meet a variety of interests. From the most simple communication like e-mail exchanges among members of a family to the most professional such as discussions on technology issues, the Yahoo! lists provide invaluable services to users of the internet. Hundreds of thousands of such Yahoo! groups including 12,000-plus with an India focus are now inaccessible to users in India. The reason is that the ISPs, in what is supposed to be an IT superpower, do not have the software to block access to individual sites on Yahoo!. If the Government has been clumsy in its targeting, the ISPs have let their subscribers down by imposing an indiscriminate ban. The Government must go deep into the issue and the practical consequences and implications of internet censorship. The ISPs must immediately upgrade what it takes to avoid wholesale inconvenience to the growing number of Indian internet users in the event of an extreme case attracting official censorship.
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