The Government of India's order blocking a Yahoo! e-group for allegedly carrying anti-India messages has created a huge furore online.
Online mailing groups like the india-gii, a telecom issues group, has been choked with members protesting against what they see as the government's unjust imposition of its authority and as a case of online censorship.
The order comes from the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) under the Department of Information Technology. Through a notification in July this year, the government designated CERT-In as the authority for blocking of sites.
Jayant Kumar is a director at the Department of Telecommunications. The order bears his signature. When reached, Kumar declined to comment on the order.
The government has charged the particular Yahoo! group with "promoting anti-national news and containing material against Government of India & State Government of Meghalaya."
This directive issued against the Yahoo! group last month is the first such order passed by the government under the Information Technology Act, 2000.
The government's ire has been directed against a group discussing the idea of secession of Meghalaya. Users who have been able to view the group's messages despite the ban, say that it has been created by an outfit called the Hynniwytrep, which supposedly represents an ethnic minority in Meghalaya.
The kynhun discussion group was set up on August 10, 2002, under Yahoo!'s 'issues and causes' directory listing. It had barely 25 members, who have posted just about 20 messages.
Most messages center around the alleged corruption in the Meghalaya government and discuss how the government has been talking about roads and similar other public ulitilities that were never built. The group also contains messages about the alleged victimisation of particular minority sections in Meghalaya.
"Fairly usual, fairly low grade -- definitely not worth this song and dance," says Suresh Ramasubramanian, who managed to have a peek into the banned messages.
ISPs drag their foot
Badri Sheshadri, a subscriber of Dishnet DSL in Chennai, was among the earliest to report that he could not access Yahoo! Groups.
Enquiries with Dishnet DSL let Sheshadri on to the secret that the block had been put in place on government orders.
However, since Dishnet did not know how to technically block just a particular group, it ended up barring access to all of Yahoo! Groups.
Initially, Dishnet did not send out any intimation to its subscribers about the block. But a popup now hangs on the Dishnet site.
Since the order has been given by the Government of India, all ISPs are bound to follow it. According to a source in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the order has been sent out to nearly 400 ISPs in India.
However, not all ISPs have blocked it. According to reports, VSNL, Sify, Hathway and many other ISPs have not implemented the order yet. In some cases, Yahoo! Groups India, which is a mirror of Yahoo Groups, US, has not been blocked as a result of which users can still access the messages.
According to a note by the Press Information Bureau, Yahoo! has refused to comply with the directive. "The representatives of Yahoo! in India were requested to remove the objectionable material from the reference, however, they declined to comply with the request," it said.
Freedom of expression
The government's order has sparked off a debate on the freedom of expression and the state's interfence in cyberspace.
"What is anti-national to some maybe patriotic to others. For instance, if the British considered Subhas Chandra Bose a fugutive, would we see a ban on the group of Azad Hind Fauj? By similar token, should Palestinian, Sri Lankan and other groups fighting for their homelands be suppressed? Should dialog with things that are 'not in national interest' be banned?" question Ashhar Farhan, who has earlier fought against the then government owned ISP VSNL's decision to block Internet telephony sites.
Not surprisingly, the government refuses to acknowledge that asking for a ban on the group is a violation of the freedom of expression.
Instead, the DoT's note says, "Blocking of such Web sites may be equated to 'balanced flow of information' and not censorship."
The IT Act 2000 has no explicit provisions to block sites, unless they promote pornography, slander, racism, gambling, terrorism or violence, which cannot be challenged under laws governing freedom of expression.
For most users though, all this fuss seems unwarranted.
"This is a futile exercise. By doing this they have just given the group more publicity and it is not very difficult to bypass the blocking if one is even marginally savvy and uses an anonymising proxy, for instance," says Udhay Shankar N, a software professional based in Bangalore.