(I don’t normally post my Time Out cybercolumn, which is written by and large for an offline, not online, audience, but this one probably deserves to be here. It was written at the height of the Indian Internet censorship controversy.)
Dr Gulshan Rai is not in the office.
On a normal day, I wouldn’t need to contact the executive director of CERT, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team. But this hasn’t been a normal day, or even a normal weekend.
If you live in Saudi Arabia, you find out about a banned site by accessing a government website that provides a list of bans and invites citizens to ask for bans on specific sites to be imposed—or removed. If you live in China, you wake up to find you can’t access Google, or Wiki, or your favourite blogger, and you know the site is now behind the notorious Great Firewall of China.
But I live in one of the world’s largest democracies, where I discover on a Friday that I can’t access blogspot, a popular hosting service for blogs. Bloggers can still post using blogspot’s mother service, Blogger.com, which has not been banned. But I can’t read my favourite blogs, whether they’re from India or elsewhere, unless I use one of the many ways in which you can bypass a ban. (See sidebar.) Popular bloggers Mridula, Dina Mehta, Desipundit and Neha Viswanathan post about this, and Neha has a running update on her site, Within and Without. A Blogger’s Collective Against Censorship is soon up and running.
I try Dr Gulshan Rai, but it’s a weekend and he’s not in office.
Until late on Monday, the Indian government does not confirm a ban, offer a list of sites that have been blocked, or offer reasons for the block. By now, most Indian service providers have blocked all sites on Blogspot, Typepad and Geocities. Blogspot and Typepad are blog hosting services; Geocities is a popular home page service. This cuts Net users off from the global streams of information available at these domains. By afternoon, we know that a directive has been issued, but the list of blocked sites remains confidential. Dr Gulshan Rai is in a meeting; he will be unavailable all day.
By the time you read this, the ban may have been lifted. Most of us think the government’s intention was to block specific sites, but that out of incompetence or overzealousness, they shut down entire domains. This is like closing down a library because one book in it might be banned. Experienced Net users are reading our favourite blogs anyway on RSS feeds or through anonymizer services. It’s the trend I worry about, and that I would like to discuss with Dr Gulshan Rai, who happens to be out of the office.
A government that is worried about the spread of free speech, terrorist activity, separatist groups, gossip about politicians, and most of all, its own lack of control over all of this, might be tempted to turn censor. A Blogspot ban is relatively minor—it only affects about 40,000 Indians directly (and many more readers). A Google or Yahoo! ban would affect millions.
This is my government. I’m fond of it, I pay the taxes it asks for, and that go towards the salary of the CERT executive director, among other government servants, but I have a right to ask that it be accountable to its citizens. If there is a ban on specific sites, tell us what these sites are, and explain why they need to be banned. Dr Gulshan Rai has the information I need, but he happens to be in a conference. It’s a pity we never got to talk: I’m sure he would have had interesting things to say.