An update: By February 6, users in Delhi logging on through MTNL or Tata Indicom could view all the sites. For those from Mumbai, Typepad.com and Mobango.com were restored and returned to the screens...not so clickatell and zone-h.
Interestingly, the site blog for typepad makes no mention of its 'temporary' inaccessible status, nor does mobango. Did the ISPs get any directives and did only some ISPs comply? Why did they get such a directive, if at all? We are none the wiser.
The blocking of four sites in February comes on the heels of the release of the long awaited draft rules for important sections of the Information Technology Act 2000 and the prognosis of both, for freedom of speech and expression, is grim.
Users were unable to access these sites- clickatell.com, zone-h.com, typepad.com and mobango.com -but only one site -typepad.com - actually had a message for those logging on : that the site was blocked as per the request of the Department of Telecom. There is no information on this site as to why the site was blocked much less is there information on the IT department's website as to how many sites have been blocked and why.
Typepad.com is a blog hosting site while clickatell offers bulk SMS services, mobango provides hosting of free mobile apps and zone-h, a cybersecuritysite. There's no clarity about why the sites are inaccessible. Zone-H was recently involved in an acromonious dispute with a Hyderabad-based information security company, E2-labs. It is quite unclear why the other sites were blocked, says Nikhil Pahwa, who hosts a digital media site, Medianama, adding that Mobango, which is part of Shaadi.com, is reportedly in talks with the Indian government on the issue.
Cybermedia activists are upset at the manner in which the sites have been blocked. Pahwa says, "what gets me angry is that we wouldn't even have got to know of the blocking. There are never any indications of which websites are blocked and why. We have got to have more transparency on these issues."
The sentiment is echoed on another blogsite, Kafila.com. In an article: Updated: Crazy internet censorship time in India, writer Shivam Vij bemoans the lack of public debate on the issue, because websites are blocked silently and no one gets to know.
If all this bodes ill for basic principles of transparency by government agencies in the exercise of their powers, a cursory reading of the draft rules under section 43A- Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal information, section 79-Due diligence observed by intermediaries and guidelines for cyber cafes only makes matters worse.
Objections to the draft rules were sought from the public by February 28, 2011. Several cybermedia activists have sent in their comments and one vainly hopes that they will get a hearing.
Cyber law experts and activists have already expressed unease at the sweeping powers given to authorities like CERT-In( Indian Computer Emergency Response Team). There is today, no check and balances in its powers, sweeping as they are.
The Free Speech Hub has already written on the draconian aspects of the amendments to the IT Act. Let's take a look at some of the more absurd clauses in the draft rules:
For cyber cafes
Section (5) All the computers in the cyber cafe shall be equipped with the
safety/filtering software so as to the avoid access to the websites relating to
pornography, obscenity, terrorism and other objectionable materials.
Whatever can the rules mean by 'objectionable' material? Stretching from porn and obscenity to terrorism to just about anything the powers that be may term 'objectionable'!
On cyber security and sensitive personal information
The rules define "Cyber security incident" as:
any real or suspected adverse event in relation to cyber security that violates an explicitly or implicitly applicable security policy resulting in unauthorised access, denial of service ordisruption, unauthorized use of a computer resource for processing orstorage of information or changes to data, information without authorisation;
On due diligence of intermediaries
Due Diligence observed by intermediary.— The intermediary shall observe
following due diligence while discharging its duties.-
(1) The intermediary shall publish the terms and conditions of use of its
(2) The intermediary shall notify users of computer resource not to use,
display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update, share or store any
information that : —
(a) belongs to another person;
(b) is harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, blasphemous,
objectionable, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, pornographic,
paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another's privacy, hateful, or
racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable, disparaging, relating or
encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in
any manner whatever;
(c) harm minors in any way;
(d) infringes any patent, trademark, copyright or other proprietary rights;
(e) violates any law for the time being in force;
(f) discloses sensitive personal information of other person or to which the
user does not have any right to;
(g) causes annoyance or inconvenience or deceives or misleads the
addressee about the origin of such messages or communicates any
information which is grossly offensive or menacing in nature;
(h) impersonate another person;
(i) contains software viruses or any other computer code, files or
programs designed to interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of any
computer resource; (j) threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India,
friendly relations with foreign states, or or public order or causes
incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents
investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation.
Whatever do these rules mean? What, for instance, is sub-clause (g) which causes annoyance or inconvenience? This is so vague just about anyone can claim annoyance and inconvenience for anything on a site and seek to monitor, intercept and block it.
In an article in Medianama, 'How The Indian Government Plans To Regulate Online Content & Blogs', Pahwa details the entire administrative mechanism the IT rules have set in place for blocking a site:
A complaint sent to a Nodal officer can only be forwarded to a Designated Officer after it has the approval of the Chief Secretary of the concerned State or Union territory. Then the request is looked into by a Committee, which has a Designated Officer as its chairperson, and representatives not below the rank of Joint Secretary in the Ministries of Law and Justice, Home Affairs, Information and Broadcasting and the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team. An order can be issued by the Secretary (Department of IT) to intermediaries (ISP), via the designated officer, to block access to the sites.
However, in case of an emergency, the Designated Officer can expedite the blocking of any site by submitting a specific recommendation to the Secretary, Department of Information Technology, though this will have to be examined by a committee within 48 hours. The other instance is in case a court issues orders blocking of certain information on the web.
So much for checks and balances!
More to the point: so much for freedom of speech and expression in India!