India tried it once about six months back but was forced to pull back due to strong protests. Now however, the country's Department of Telecom (DoT), the authority that controls telecommunications, is working on a smart way out of censoring the Internet without attracting a public outcry. And if the DoT can have its way, India may put a stop to Internet telephony services of Yahoo, MSN and Skype among a host of others that are mushrooming in the country.
According to its officials, the DoT has decided to put in place an advance screening system at the bandwidth landing stations in the country that will help the Department to block undesirable websites and blogs.
"A Committee has been formed in December [last year] to examine technical measures for blocking websites that DoT considers undesirable," said an official from the DoT, adding that the committee has the mandate to examine the technical aspect of website blocking, and recommend measures for having URL (universal resource locator) based blocking with internet service providers.
The DoT wants to install the technology at the eight landing stations ? that bring international bandwidth ? in India. "The DoT has already intimated this decision to us, as well as to the security agencies, leading internet service providers (ISPs) and the three telecom companies that who own landing stations," said Rajesh Chharia, president, Internet Service Providers Association of India, "and this technology, will be capable of blocking websites at a sub-domain level, instead of a sweeping shutdown (of an IP address; like yahoo.com)."
"After the system is in place," added Charia, "the DoT can direct the landing stations operators to not only to block a particular URL at the sub-domain level but also VoIP telephony services such Yahoo, MSN and Skype ( and many more) because strictly speaking these have not obtained the required permission to operate VoIP services in India."
The Department, says ISPAI, has already short listed 3 equipment vendors -- Cisco, Juniper and Span Systems -- and have instructed international gateway operators to select their equipment. "In a short while from now," says Charia, "may be in about three to four months, we could see the screening system in place."
Although the issue of censoring the Internet is increasingly emerging as an issue of hot debate among the growing Internet population in India, the system will come as a relief for ISPs who are often instructed to block specific web pages that are politically and socially sensitive.
In December 2003, for instance, when India instructed ISPs to block access to a pro-separatist Yahoo!-hosted discussion group Kyunhun, all Yahoo e-groups became inaccessible in India. In blocking the group's IP address, all other Yahoo! groups were automatically cut off as well. "Blocking of a near invisible website ordered by Indian agencies in the name of national security, is reprehensible enough, but the blocking of an entire domain (groups.yahoo.com) was not justified," says Sivarama Krishnan executive director, Global Risk Management of the consultancy firm, Pricewaterhouse Cooper.
Blocking of individual websites in fact had become an outrageous issue last year in July last year, when, following the terrorist blasts in Mumbai blasts, the DoT had directed ISPs to ban 18 blogs and websites. However, as India ISPs did not possess the technologies needed to execute the directive, the service providers implemented the ban at the domain level. This resulted in a public outcry and international criticism, as users were unable to access scores of websites and blogs.
However, while India says that censoring the Internet is not its intention; "we just want to block unwanted sites that have a bad influence on the country's society and poses security threats," says the DoT, many wonder if the country can really achieve its objectives, even after installing high technology.
"I do not know how the DoT can block websites technically," says Desi S. Valli, technical director, Net4India Ltd, a local ISP. "Even the US with all cutting-edge monitoring equipment has been unable to block all undesirable internet sites. Indeed, past experiences have proved that whenever the DoT tried to block a website at one IP address, another pops up at another IP address and, as Charia says, if one VoIP provider is blocked, many others take its place almost instantly.
Over the past five years, the DoT has attempted to block "undesirable" websites many a times, but all efforts have been futile. The first case of Internet censorship was Hinduunity.org, which claims to be the official website of the Bajrang Dal, an Indian secessionist force that promotes an anti-Muslim movement and advocates "Hindu militancy" on its site. In 2001, India tried to ban this site, which was hosted from a US-based web server but it was instantly rescued by a banned Zionist organization there, and can be still be accessible in India by any computer-savvy web surfer.
Here's another instance; in May 2006, DoT tried to delete, from its host server, the Maoist website www.peoplesmarch.com, which tries to assert their right to free speech and condemns India's censorship attempts. But every time it was deleted, it appeared again somewhere else. And now, the site can be found at http://peoplesmarch.googlepages.com
Still DoT says that Internet should be controlled since it is misused in India. According to the regulator, with a burgeoning Internet population, blogging on fanatic and religious websites have surged soon after the Mumbai and Srinagar (in Kashmir) bomb blasts last year. The DoT says that as many as 18 websites popped-up following those blasts, all of which were blogging reactions.
But can India really censor the Internet legally? That is a grey area. Although under the Constitution of India, there is no established law defining censorship of the Internet or websites, 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, to monitor all incoming and outgoing Internet traffic from India. Many institutions and agencies are allowed to call on the DoT, including the home affairs ministry, courts, the intelligence services, the police and the head of the National Human Rights Commission. CERT-IN's main mission is to enhance the security of India's communications and information infrastructure through proactive action and effective collaboration.
The primary purpose of CERT-IN is to handle Internet security so that "websites promoting hate content, slander or defamation of others, promoting gambling, promoting racism, violence and terrorism and other such material, in addition to promoting pornography, including child pornography, and violent sex can easily be blocked since all such websites may not claim constitutional right of free speech."
"Therefore", says cyber-law expert Praveen Dalal, "websites falling under these categories blocked within the provisions of the Fundamental Right to free speech and expression, granted in India's Constitution. However, if the blocking is arbitrary, unreasonable and unfair, it would be in violation of Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India."
However, Rajesh Chharia, president of the ISPAI feels censoring the Internet or blocking websites is not the only solution. "Trying to block thousands of websites will be an impossible task for any administrator," he says. "We should educate our citizens on the ill effects of the Internet or certain websites. But to a curious surfer there will always be a way out to reach a questionable website."
The ISPAI therefore suggests that that task of controlling the internet should be removed from the DoT and relegated to an independent agency that should analyze carefully such requests and issue directions regarding blocking of unwanted websites. It suggest, there should at least be one representative from ISPAI and the international gateway community in such an agency, so that technical feasibilities can be taken care of before issuing such directives.
"We have also suggested that this agency should analyze Indian internet content continuously and advise the DoT on requisite actions. That way absolute power of the DoT could be curbed to some extent," said Charia adding quickly, "But so far, this is just a suggestion and it is the DoT's discretion now whether it should accepted it or not."
Photo by Brian McGuirk. Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0