India blocks political websites and blogs

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Hundreds of thousands of Indian bloggers were left in the lurch this week after the government’s move to block access to about 17 websites inadvertently affected popular services such as Google’s Blogger and Yahoo’s Geocities because of technological gaffes.

The ban, part of an effort to block individual websites with strident political views, drew ire from bloggers worldwide and prompted a fresh debate about freedom of speech in the world’s most populous democracy.

The Department of Telecommunications gave no explanation for its directive, but it came two days after terrorist bombings killed more than 200 in Mumbai on Tuesday last week. Investigators have not yet blamed the attacks on any single group. The blacklist includes websites promoting Hinduism, rights for lower castes and politically charged blogs but also seemingly innocuous ones. The blocks are to last indefinitely.

In India freedom of speech is protected under its constitution. But the big internet service providers such as VSNL, Bharti, Reliance and Sify must comply with orders because certain laws allow the government to ban objectionable websites.

“It is part of our licence obligation,” said Deepak Maheshwari, secretary of the Internet Service Providers’ Association of India (ISPAI). “The government has the right to direct us to block something.”

But due to the added complexity of blocking individual blog sites, entire domains such as Blog-spot.com and Geocities.com are inaccessible within India on some ISPs, particularly smaller ones. “In some cases, that has happened,” Mr Maheshwari said. “We are advising [the ISPs] today.”

Internet users and advocates say the blocks are easily circumvented by using third-party websites; subscribing to feeds that aggregate blogs; or using a translation tool to access a site.

“It’s a completely pointless exercise,” said Arun Mehta, a computer engineering professor at JMIT technology college in Radaur. Mr Mehta, who moderates a popular internet discussion list, said the blocks were a “knee-jerk reaction” that should be taken up in the high court.

Google India is looking into the situation. It said: “We are puzzled and disappointed by reports we have seen that users in India are not able to access Blogspot.”

Reporters Without Borders, the international media rights watchdog, has asked the Indian government agency Computer Emergency Response Team to review the decision.

India’s government has periodically blocked websites but the move comes months after China’s high-profile clampdown on US search engines and websites.

Google drew criticism this year from media rights advocates for censoring its China-based search service to comply with government censorship. Microsoft already bars discussion of sensitive topics – and even the use of words such as freedom and democracy – from parts of its MSN site in China.

Yahoo has drawn fire for its role in helping authorities track down outspoken journalist Shi Tao, a user of its e-mail service who was jailed for 10 years last April for revealing information about a Communist party media crackdown.

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