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Censorship and Internet in India

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Suggested software -For Parental control of of "xxx" sites
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Electronic Frontier Foundation - Repository of Information about fight for Freedom of Speech in USA
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Censorship and Internet in India: Can We Keep Internet In India free?
by Dr. Raj Mehta

Note: This posting is not relevant, as VSNL is not blocking any sites(Apr. 23, 1999)

A posting from india-gii@cpsr.com

From: Vipul Ved Prakash
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 blockage."

The censored server, at the (currently blocked) IP address of 208.222.215.97, 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 Limited.

The award-winning web site of Connect magazine, the first Indian print publication to launch a web edition, is also located on the General Logic server.

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 Internet.

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 chosen profession."

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, however.

"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 'net.

"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."

[1324 Words] _________________________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. Dr. Arun Mehta's petition is at
    http://members.tripod.com/~india-gii/telepet
    .
  2. The Forum for Rights to Electronic Expression articles are at
    http://www.eff.org/pub/FREE
  3. Censored sites: http://sensenet.net (Currently blocked)
    http://www.trade-india.com/" (Now accessible on a new server)
    http://www.aptc-india.com
    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)

  4. Email addresses:



Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 Dr. Raj Mehta. All rights reserved.