Quick – what do India, Pakistan, China and Ethiopia have in common?
It’s not a love of cricket. Or clandestine nuclear arms programs. Or even a fondness for flatbread.
They’re all – apparently – blocking blogspot.com.
India is the newcomer to this party, and it’s unclear just what blogs are being blocked, whether all ISPs are complying, and whether all blogspot blogs will be blocked or just a subset of sites. Fortunately, Indian bloggers are on the case, rapidly documenting just what can and can’t be reached.
Neha Viswanathan – Global Voices editor for South Asia and lovely human being – is doing a fantastic job of documenting the situation on her blog. Reading from the top to the bottom of a recent post – with fourteen updates – you get an excellent sense of how Indian bloggers are figuring out just what, precisely, is going on. She points to several other articles, which have excellent summaries of the situation, as people currently understand it, including Rediff, Amit, and Dina.
One of the major challenges of documenting and decrying Internet censorship is that it can be very confusing to figure out precisely why you can’t access a particular website. Is the problem specific to your internet service provider? Is the server down? Or is a block of some sort taking place? Groups like Open Net Initiative do an excellent job of documenting the specifics of internet filtering, but they’re academic groups and have a focus on getting the story right, not on speed. (I’ve written about this before.) Indian bloggers are showing a distributed model for filtering testing that has interesting possibilities for the future – Neha and others have posted information on running traceroutes to blogger.com and are asking people to post the results of their inquiries on various Indian ISPs on a wiki.
The story that seems to be emerging: a directive from the Department of Telecommunications has ordered a set of sites to be blocked within India. Shivam Vij reports:
Then I called up a senior MTNL engineer who’s in-charge of these things, Mr. R.H.Sharma. Mr Sharma was polite and helpful and said that he had a long 22-page of list of sites, sent to him by the National Informatics Centre, and he would needs two hours to go through it and find out if it contains any Blogspot or Typepad site! But he said that as far as he knew MTNL had not blocked blogspot per se.
It is possible that ISPs, charged with complying with DoT guidelines, are overblocking all Blogspot, Geocites and Typepad blogs. It’s also possible that, with protests from the Indian blogger community, more specific guidelines will emerge so that only the specific sites mentioned on the 22-page list are blocked. It’s also possible that outcry will be such that blocks as a whole will be eliminated. But this isn’t the first time the Indian government has responded to online speech with a heavy hand – Rediff gives an account of Yahoo! Group blocking in 2003:
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.
The timing of the block seems to reflect concerns about terrorism, given the recent Mumbai train bombings. Chacko at Great Indian Mutiny makes this connection explicit, citing an anonymous source who reported, “It seems that some blogs are being used by some terror units (read SIMI) to communicate. There is a crack down in place. IP numbers are being physically located and identified. All should come back to normal once this operation is over. There is no ban in place. Livejournal and WordPress have been spared. No reason given.” (SIMI = “Student Islamic Movement of India”)
Needless to say, most Indian bloggers are deeply upset about this apparent block. The fact that Pakistan has a similar block in place – put in place in the wake of the Danish cartoons, fiercely combatted by the Don’t Block the Blogs campaign – isn’t much consolation. Vulturo notes, “When the Pakistani government blocked access to blogs hosted on blogspot, it felt sort of ridiculous. Such things could only happen in Pakistan, I reflected smugly. Or China, perhaps. Surely we need not be worried, I thought.”
As we learn more about the situation, it seems that Indian bloggers very much need to be worried. As blogs become more an more important as a platform for free speech, government seeking to restrict speech are finding it appealing to control speech on blogs. Let’s hope the reaction within and outside India is loud, fierce and sufficient to prevent India from permanently joining the ranks of countries that find online speech too threatening to allow to flower.