Date: Friday, November 20, 1998 6:08 AM
Subject: VSNL Censors Indian Internet Sites.
17 November, 1998
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Vipul Ved Prakash, 2233328.
VSNL Censors Indian Internet Sites
NEW DELHI, INDIA - VSNL, the Indian Internet monopoly, has been
illegally blocking Internet access to a number of Indian web sites for
the last several weeks, a Delhi-based Internet presence provider
revealed today. The block affects only Indian citizens in India -
users anywhere else in the world are not affected.
One of the sites targeted is Sense/NET, (www.sensenet.net). Sense/NET
lets users of VSNL's text-based shell account use the graphical
Netscape browser over their shell accounts, while using only the
normal shell account facilities that VSNL provides. With Sense/NET,
the common man can surf the Internet just like with VSNL's premium
TCP/IP service, but at a fraction of the cost.
General Logic, the startup company behind the Sense/NET service, is
not taking the blocking of its server lightly. "We did not so much as
receive any communication from VSNL about this step, which has the
potential to seriously affect our business," said Dr. Pawan Jaitly, a
director of the company. "It seems very strange, too, that a security
breach was attempted on our server over the Internet just days before
The censored server, at the (currently blocked) IP address of
126.96.36.199, hosts a number of other web sites including the
largest Yellow Pages of Indian exporters and importers available on
the Internet and the corporate web sites of the Apple Publishing
Technology Center, NewGen Software, and Educational Consultants India
The award-winning web site of Connect magazine, the first Indian print
publication to launch a web edition, is also located on the General
Sense/NET users and others affected by the block who called up VSNL's
help desk to request clarification on this issue and access to the
sites were told by VSNL staffers that they did not know what the
problem was, and that they themselves could not access the sites in
question. No official intimation or even acknowledgement about the
block has been forthcoming from VSNL.
This is not the first time VSNL has blocked access to selected sites
on the Internet. On September 19, 1998, online activist Dr. Arun
Mehta's writ petition was admitted for hearing in the court of Justice
Anil Dev Singh, Delhi High Court, against VSNL, challenging its
blockage of certain Internet sites. The sites listed in the petition
provide information and software for voice transmissions over the
The petition argues that this action "is wholly without basis in law
and amounts to arbitrary and illegal censorship of the petitioner's
Fundamental Right to freedom of speech, expression and information as
well as an illegal denial of his right to freedom to practice his
The petition seeks affirmation that the constitutional rights to free
speech apply equally in cyberspace, and it also opens up the issue of
VSNL's ban on Internet telephony to judicial scrutiny. The matter will
come up for hearing on December 9, 1998. The case is being argued by
Mr. Ashok Aggarwal.
The Exporters and Importers Yellow Pages web site hosted on General
Logic's recently blocked server is a vital e-commerce resource for
over sixty-five thousand traders who earn India valuable foreign
exchange. "This ban will hurt Indian exporters as well. By banning
access to sites... VSNL is cynically choosing to let the nation suffer
severe loss if in the process it can safeguard its own monopolistic
profits," said Dr. Mehta.
"Ironically, VSNL also blocked Educational Consultants, a public
sector government organization, with its action."
General Logic was able to move all the web sites that were the victims
of VSNL's action to a non-blocked area within hours. "Most of our
clients didn't even notice their sites and email messages were being
blocked by VSNL," said Dr. Jaitly. The Sense/NET site remains blocked,
"What VSNL is doing is completely illegal. A website is a means of
expression and is covered by the right to expression of all indian
citizens under article 19(1)a of the Indian Constitution. This can
only be restricted under article 19(2) on 'reasonable grounds' which
include obscenity, but certainly not the provision of competitive
services at reasonable cost," commented Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, managing
editor of First Monday, a European journal on Internet law.
Last year a duo of computer whiz-kids in Cochin released Shellsock, a
software package that made it possible for users of VSNL shell
accounts to browse the 'Net graphically. VSNL quickly set about
working on ways to break Shellsock, and eventually succeeded in
restricting the environment on its shell accounts to the extent that
Shellsock was unable to function.
General Logic launched its Sense/NET service soon after, with the goal
of providing TCP/IP Internet 'tunneling' service to users worldwide,
not just in India. "There are other countries suffering under the yoke
of state censorship of the Internet, like China, whose authoritatian
government, without warning, blocked access to the BBC web site for
its citizens," said Dr. Mehta. "VSNL is a monopoly that is crippling
India's progress on the Internet front."
Even Microsoft, he observed, which holds an effective monopoly in the
operating system market worldwide, has no mandate by any government in
the market - it has to keep forging ahead or lose to its competitors.
"VSNL does not have that motivation, and so it is that the Indian
consumer and India suffer."
Besides the threat of censorship and poor service, another risk with
state monopoly Internet access providers is that they can read your
mail, and monitor your communications, as the data flows through their
systems. Jaitly disclosed that his company is working on providing
strong military grade encryption as part of its Internet tunneling
services, to provide secure private networks across untrusted links
for business and personal use.
"We envision Sense/NET as a sort of 'Meta ISP' providing secure,
uncensorable Internet tunneling service to people in places where
local access providers are unable or unwilling to deliver full
access," said Vipul Ved Prakash, Director of research at General
Logic. "We believe in every individual's fundamental right to access
human knowledge without restriction. Our message to these people is:
'There's light at the end of the tunnel.'"
It's not all crypto-anarchy and dreams of digital revolution, however.
Sense/NET is a valuable service for ordinary users who are attempting
to make the most effective use of their VSNL shell accounts with the
limited services provided. Many of the subscribers to the service are
students and other low income groups, who simply cannot afford VSNL's
higher priced services.
A case in point is that of Pranav Lal, a New Delhi student. Pranav is
blind, and VSNL's shell account is next to useless for him. Sense/NET
on the other hand allows him to use voice-enabled software to surf the
"I can't afford the VSNL TCP/IP account, but for me it is vital that I
am in touch with my peers over the world over the Internet," says
Pranav. "Sense/NET is great because it lets me handle my email and
navigate the web really simply."
"We see the global free flow of ideas across national borders, enabled
by digital data communications and encryption technology, as the most
liberating development of the 20th century," said Ashish Gulhati head
of development at General Logic. "Regulation is futile," he added. The
company expects its services will be most in demand in countries where
authoritarian regimes are in power.
"It's shocking that this kind of thing continues to go on in India,"
observed Dr. Mehta. "We're the world's largest democracy, on the brink
of entering the 21st century as a major player in the global software
industry. But we're still enslaved by laws created during the British
Raj, even in high priority areas like telecom."
- Dr. Arun Mehta's petition is at
- The Forum for Rights to Electronic Expression articles are at
- Censored sites:
http://sensenet.net (Currently blocked)
http://www.trade-india.com/" (Now accessible on a new server)
http://www.edcil.org/ (Now accessible on a new server)
http://www.newgensoft.com (Now accessible on a new server)
http://www.newgen.net/ (Now accessible on a new server)
http://www.connectionmagazine.com/ (Now accessible on a new server)
http://www.net2phone.com">http://www.net2phone.com (Currently blocked)
http://www.vocaltec.com/ (Currently blocked)
http://www.netspeack.com/ (Currently blocked)
- Email addresses: