Monday, July 24, 2006

Ambulance chasing

So the Sarkar in its wisdom decided to block some websites and thereby buggered the happiness of gazillions of Indian net-users, some of whom happened to be bloggers. This was not a nice things to do - but then, governments are rarely run by nice people.
As common citizens we all have a duty to protect our own constitutional rights and to the credit of the Netosphere, enough of a fuss was made to get some key sites unblocked.
One will now have to fight a long, painful legal battle over an indeterminate period to ensure that we don't all get crapped on again by some random dickhead hiding behind a civil servant's designation. I doubt that too many people will last that particular course.
Like all journalists, I decided to try and exploit the screw-up for all it was worth.
Yes, like ambulance-chasers and drug-dealers, journos also make their living through exploiting misery.
I wrote two pieces on the subject that I will own upto
One was an unsigned edit.
The other was a signed edit. Both went through a process of editing/ headlining, which I don't necessarily agree with.
The text will disappear soon into the black hole of BS's archives. So here we go.
This was the unsigned piece.

At last count, over 42,000 bloggers on the Google-owned domain http://blogspot.com called themselves “Indian”. Typepad.com, another popular blog-hosting domain, had over 7,000 Indians on its site. And the Yahoo!-owned geocities.com hosts over one lakh Indian homepages. These three domains normally draw 10 million Indian eyeballs per day.
Last week, the CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) of the department of telecommunications demanded that Internet access to these three domains be blocked by all Indian Internet service-providers. It offered no explanations for this drastic action, and has since refused to make the list of blocked sites public.
On one occasion when a media correspondent (from rediff.com) did get through to the CERT director, Gulshan Rai reportedly responded, “Somebody must have blocked some sites. What is your problem?” Who is that “somebody”? What sites were blocked? Why? It appears that the CERT doesn’t believe anyone has a right to know the answers to these questions. The opacity of the blocking and the lack of accountability are astounding, given that this was done by a government organisation in what is proudly touted as the world’s largest democracy.
Dr Rai may have thought the question he asked was rhetorical. But it is possible to answer it. In detail. To wit, thousands of individuals and many organisations earn an income directly and indirectly from their online presence on these three (and other) sites. The blocks imposed by the CERT interfere with their ability to earn that income.
The concept of free blog-hosting is based on advertising. Free blogs display advertising targeted at their readership and receive an income from pay-per-view and click-through models. If there is no viewership because the site has been blocked, or the readership cannot be accurately tracked because it is coming through anonymising proxies, the income disappears. That affects pretty much every user of these domains.
Another sort of economic hardship is incurred by writers, artists, photographers, sculptors, designers, musicians, hardware assemblers and freelance software developers, who maintain blogs as the equivalent of virtual, interactive, calling cards. This community of professionals finds it useful to archive work on blogs and homepages. The homepages and blogs are brand-building exercises and communication channels in one. Potential clients can view the work, and contact them if they so desire. By blocking access, the CERT has taken away potential custom from these people and impinged on their collective right to earn a living. The published writers affected by this specific ban include dozens of freelancers in both the media and advertising.
A third category of persons who certainly have a problem with the blocks are various non-government organisations. A free blog and homepage are perfect extensions of an NGO’s presence, enabling it to showcase work-in-progress and to access aid across barriers of time and distance. Substantial aid is coordinated through NGO blogs. Blogs have proved useful in disaster relief as well. The tsunami help site at blogspot helped coordinate global aid to five nations. And the Mumbai help site, which was launched within an hour of the train bombings, helped tens of thousands contact their loved ones. Regrettably that site is now inaccessible to Indians. So, Dr Rai, there are indeed a large number of people who do have lots of problems with “somebody blocking some sites”. The one good outcome of this entire episode is that the outrage it has caused may eventually force a review of this opaque process.

This was the signed edit (Business Standard July 22, 2006).

In 1988, the home ministry cited the concerns of various religious forums to justify demands for a ban on Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (TSV) on the grounds that it could cause public unrest. The ban was granted, despite the concerns of the author, the publisher and civil rights groups about censorship and freedom of speech, on the grounds of “avoiding communal tension”. The ban continues to be in force.
TSV caused a global furore but it is only one of hundreds of books and periodicals that have been banned at various times by the Indian authorities. Sadly, the constitutional protection of the Freedom of Expression (Article 19) is hedged with all sorts of caveats about being “subject to reasonable restriction—in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”, etc.
The gobbledygook means that if a government agency (or an individual) believes that these “reasonable restrictions” apply to a specific case, it can appeal for a suspension of the Freedom of Expression. If the court is convinced, the publication in question may be banned. In each case, the author and publisher have the right to appeal against the ban. Due process is always followed.
Every banned book and periodical is notified under the Customs Act, 1962, and listed in the Customs Law Manual. You can look up each case for details of the legal processes involved. In every instance, a state government or central government agency or less often, a private individual, approached a court and made a representation, stating the reasons why a ban was desirable.
Quite often, the right to appeal against a ban has been successfully exercised. For example, Khushwant Singh’s novel The Company of Women survived a challenge in the Madras High Court when a private citizen filed a PIL stating that he was offended by a raunchy encounter between an Indian man and a Pakistani woman that included the immortal line “Pakistan must be on top!” The court threw it out after consulting the home ministry, saying that it trusted to the “Good Sense of readers”, though subsequent editions were revised to omit the scene.
Again, in 2005, the Calcutta High Court lifted a ban imposed by the government of West Bengal on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhondita, observing this was “unjustified” and “untenable”. And, The God of Small Things survived two challenges in Kerala, one on grounds of obscenity, the other for making derogatory references to the EMS government of 1959.
However, when it came to the Internet, the GoI appears to have quietly shelved its commitment to due process. To put it in a nutshell, under the IT Act, 2000, bans and blocks on websites can be asked for by a string of listed government departments on roughly the same grounds as bans on printed material.
However, there is no need to go to court. The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) of the department of telecommunications receives the request, processes it and informs all Internet Service Providers. A CERT order blocking a website is sufficient to keep it out of Indian cyberspace.
The list of blocked sites is not made public; the name of the organisation asking for the ban is not made public; the grounds are not made public; there is no right to redress; there is no process of appeal. Even the Saudis are more transparent.
Is the CERT competent at this task? Not on its track record. For the past week, it has blocked access to millions of websites apparently because somebody (we don’t know who) was offended by the diary of a US republican supporter (exposingtheleft.blogspot.com) and the 2004 journal of a teenaged virgin (princesskimberly.blogspot.com). It has attempted to obfuscate the issue by making vague references to national security, which are quite as ludicrous as the blocks themselves.
Is this constitutional? You tell me!

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