Monday, July 17, 2006

"Block!" go the weasels

"We would like those people to come forward who access these (the 12) radical websites and please explain to us what are they missing from their lives in the absence of these sites."

from this morning's Hindustan Times news report on the banning of blogspot and other sites

(for more coverage of the issue in the mainstream press, see here)

Okay. You asked for it.

First of all, notice that it's not citizens who are supposed to have to defend their right to free expression, it's the government that needs to justify any steps taken to curb those freedoms. There are many, many things one could argue that we don't 'need' - books for example, or music, or theatre, or art, or museums, or malls, or television, or restaurants - many if not most of these may well be irrelevant to the cretins sitting in the DoT. That's precisely why they don't get to decide what's meaningful or not meaningful for us. The government has no role policing lifestyle or opinion or deciding what is or is not valuable for its citizens.

Second, let's be clear about why this ban is unacceptable [1] :

It doesn't work (part 1): Blocking a few sites doesn't in any meaningful way hamper communication over the Internet. Even someone as technically illiterate as I, can, with a little determination and some help from my friends, find a way to access any site I want, bans from the government notwithstanding. All a ban means, in practice, is a lot of harrassment of perfectly well-meaning people who are now forced to find ways around this meaningless ban [2].

It doesn't work (part 2): Even if, by some extreme means (such as shutting down ISPs all together) the GoI could effectively block all Internet access, is that really going to stop people from communicating with each other? Can we assume that in the days before the Internet / blogs no one was ever able to send messages to his fellow terrorist or express anti-national sentiments? Or is the government planning to take down all forms of communication? Ban newspapers, take down phone lines, stop postal services, perhaps even call out the Army to shoot down flying pigeons because some of them might be carrying anti-national messages tied to their legs?

It shouldn't work: The government's role is to attack crime, not opinion. In a free, democratic society people have a right to their point of view. We may disagree with them, but we don't censor them. If it's valid to shut down blogs because they express anti-national sentiments, can we assume that it's also valid to throw people in jail because they protest against or criticise the government? And if expressing an opinion is a crime, then why isn't holding that opinion a crime also? Why don't we start bugging people's houses to see if they are saying things against the country or the government? Why don't we drag random people off the streets and interrogate them to see if they hold anti-nationalistic sentiments. Welcome to the Orwellian world of the thought police.

It hurts everyone, not just the intended targets: Along the lines of my previous post - it is not okay to harm or punish thousands of innocent people [3] in order to attack a few miscreants. That's exactly the kind of thinking that we're trying to fight against. The whole point of terrorism is to make people afraid enough so that they can no longer go on living their normal life, no longer enjoy the freedoms that they're accustomed to. It is to force upon others the lack of liberty that you face yourself, to make them live the way you do. Taking away citizen's rights is not fighting terrorism, it's perpetuating it.

Do blogs really make a difference?: Do we really believe that seeing a post on a blog, or hearing a speech someone makes can change a perfectly well-meaning, innocent person into a terrorist? If I happen to come upon a post that expresses anti-India sentiments am I suddenly going to turn around and start planting bombs in trains or attacking other people in their houses? Of course not. The only people who are 'inspired' to action by a blog post are people who already believed or thought what the post was saying. Certainly, blogs and other means of communication may serve as effective means of coordinating / communicating between them, but unless we're willing to take out all forms of public communication entirely, there's no way to stop that.

If blogs make a difference, what about the positives: No, no, you say, reacting to that last point. You're a devoted blogger. You believe that your words are changing the world. Blog posts matter. Fair enough. But notice that for every post I've seen in the past week expressing violent or anti-India sentiments I've seen a dozen calling for peace and compassion, a dozen expressing support, solidarity or sympathy. If blogs affect how people think (and we'd certainly like to believe they do) then blocking all blogs means that we're poorer as a society because all the positive affirmation that blogs gave us is no longer possible.

Divided we fall: We're not just poorer as a society, we're also weaker. Human beings survive crisis and deal with fear through contact with other people. Isolate us and we're more vulnerable. Much has been said about the great work done right after the Bombay blasts by the folks over at Mumbai Help. That's just one example of how communication makes us stronger. If the government takes down lines of communication between people on the grounds that terrorists might use them, the only people not likely to be affected by that in a crisis are the terrorists, who, knowing that the crisis is coming will have planned for it in advance. What it will do is make it harder for us to reach out to each other in times of tragedy. What it will do is increase panic, make it easier to spread rumours, cause more fear. And that's exactly what the government should be trying to avoid.

You might say I'm exaggerating - that the ban as it stands today doesn't hamper our ability to communicate that much. Yes. But the thinking behind it is pernicious, and I'd rather make the point against it now, rather than wait till it spreads so far that it's impossible to make the point at all

It's bad for our international reputation: If there's one thing India has going for it internationally it's our reputation as a democracy, as a free society. That's not just central to our claim as a preferred economic destination, it's also our key bargaining chip in international geo-politics. Any Western power that claims to champion democracy and be against military dictatorships and other oppresive regimes, cannot run away from the fact that we are, in every sense of the word, a state that protects individual liberty and democratic principle. The bureaucrats sitting in DoT may not see the significance of blocking access to blogs, the Western media will. At a time when we need to try and push for greater Western pressure to stop political support for terrorism, the last thing we need is to be seen as a repressive state that, like China, denies its citizens free access to information and public expression

Transparency: Finally, there's the issue of transparency. It's not just that the government has blocked / banned websites, it's that they've concealed this from the public. It's been five days since the letters went out to the ISPs and I'm yet to see a clear statement from the government as to what sites are to be blocked, how long that block will last or why exactly it is deemed necessary to block them. Even if the government in its extremely finite wisdom feels that allowing blogspot access is somehow inimical to national interest, surely we, as citizens, have a right to know about it. Why should we have to piece the story together by calling our ISPs and weaving our way through a web of evasion and lies from government officials? It's obviously convenient for the government not to give us a clear decision to attack, but that's precisely what democracy is about - being transparent about government actions and answerable to the people for them.

Don't get me wrong. God forbid that I should be anti-India or say anything against our wonderful, enlightened leaders. If anything, I think the government is reacting too mildly. Think about it. We know that there are some anti-India radicals living in Bombay. The government of India has nuclear weapons. Why don't they use them to nuke the city? That way we're not just sure to kill the terrorists, we'll also be stealing a march on Pakistan. Of course a few million innocent people may die as well, but hey, if they don't like it, let them come forward afterwards and explain to us what they are missing from their lives now that they've been turned into radioactive dust.


I, of course, am delighted with this ban thing. After 27 years of living as a lily-livered coward, I'm finally dangerous, an anti-India radical, a public enemy. Look at me, everyone, I'm BAD!! No more being shoved aside in supermarket queues by little old ladies, no more stammering in panic when a cop pulls me over for speeding. Watch out people - I may not look like much, but I'll have you know that the world's largest democracy is scared of me. That's right, hot shot, 1 billion plus people and they all quake in fear because of what I write on my blog. So you can just stop waving that fist in my face, if you know what's good for you.

This is really exciting. I've never been dangerous before. Even babies who usually scream in fright when handed to a stranger have no compunction in pulling my hair or punching me in the nose. But no longer. Now I can finally stand up to that night club bouncer and tell him where he gets off. Now I can finally go out walking through the shadier parts of town at two am, secure in the knowledge that no one's going to mug a dangerous terrorist like me. This is what Don Corleone must have felt like. No wonder his cheeks swelled up so. The possibilities are endless. Just think about all the women who've turned me down because I was too vanilla, too harmless. Hah! I bet they're kicking themselves right about now.

As for the people who think that all this blogging of mine is a waste of time - are you reading this? I'm big, see. I can destabilise an entire country, see. That spectacled wimp Clark Kent has got nothing on me.

So there.


[1] MSM meanwhile continues to be its usual incoherent self. The Economic Times carries the story on its front page. Awfully nice of them, and I'm genuinely grateful. But would it have killed them to write, just this once, a clear story? If you didn't know anything about the ban and read the story I swear you'd come away with the impression that DoT had banned some 17-18 sites, one of which happened to be, by mistake, MumbaiHelp, and that anyway the ban didn't matter because it was easy to get around. Except it does matter and it's not just 17 sites, it's all blogspot blogs. They do kind of make the point in the text, but for something that's the main issue here, it's kind of hidden away.

Oh, and what's with the irony of pkblogs bit. If there's an irony at all it's not that a blog to help the victims of a possibly Pakistan sponsored attack is being accessed through Pakistan, it's that even as we condemn the Pakistan government we're happily adopting their practises, forcing our citizens to take exactly the same measures that Pakistani bloggers were forced to take. If we're so opposed to the Pakistani government, you'd think we'd want to be less like them, not more.

[2] It's not just that the way to fight technology is not through this kind of half-baked banning but through something more sophisticated. It's also that, almost by definition, it's always going to be more difficult for the innocent to get around a blanket ban like this one, than for anyone (such as a terrorist) for whom this may truly be crucial / critical to their plans.

[3] Okay, so 'innocent' is probably a stretch applied to some of us, but you know what I mean.


confused said...

Excellent post, Falstaff.

I cant believe the stupidity of the government. I was initially sceptical of the claims, thinking the government could not be so stupid. But, alas!

Frankly, I uphold the right to hate speech too.

Szerelem said...

thank you.
and yes the Economic Times was totally incoherent but atleas they put the story on page one. The ToI didnt even cover the ban...ummm yes i know the ToI doesnt actually publish news but it wouldve been nice to have been proven wrong.
and congratulations on finally being bad =P

Dipanjan said...

Great post. I can not believe the instruction from government was to block * More likely scenario is there were a bunch of blogspot sites in the list of sites to be blocked and the lazy ISPs blocked the whole domain to save the extra work. Not that I support blocking even a single site.

Swathi said...

'am still in a state of shock n 'am wishing that it was one big mistake by those Govt. officials at DoT and hoping that this ban is lifted soon.(thankfully 'am still able to access blogspot!)

Radhika said... after day i come back and read the stuff u write...u think beautifully! Kudos to that...great post.

Starship Enterprise said...

Blocking blogs is not so much about policing lifestyle as it is about intentional curbing of the freedom of expression. To me, it casts serious doubts over the credibility of the Government's efforts to fight terrorism, if this is the approach towards finding solutions. Moreover, it smacks of distrust on the intelligence of the masses that make up the all-important "votebanks", if not (more respectably!) the "citizens".

Sunbeamz said...

Looks like they are working now...
I couldn't (direct)access a few minutes ago but now I can

sunbeamz said...

spoke too soon, apparently!

ozymandiaz said...

Thanks Falstaff. There was some useful information here I shall forward to those cut off.
I liked your response to Mobius. Although I believe his righteous indignation is a bit over the top (or a whole lot actually). He makes terrorists everywhere proud, attacking the same people.

n said...

"This is really exciting. I've never been dangerous before. Even babies who usually scream in fright when handed to a stranger have no compunction in pulling my hair or punching me in the nose."
feeling strangely empowered by the ban, are we?

I think the worst part of the block is that it stems from technological imcompetence. The govt lists specific blognames. Unable to block those, it appears the ISPs blocked all of blogspot instead. Simple solution.
Now all of 'em are pretending not to understand what blogspot and blogs hosted on them are. All their domains and sub domains have flown out of the window. nutcases.

Falstaff said...

confused: Tch tch. Never underestimate the stupidity of a government. Has the Bush Administration taught you nothing?

szerelm: They have the story now - except that it's more or less the same story as the one in the Eco Times. TAlk about the blind leading the blind.

dipanjan: Ah, but the point is that we don't know, do we? As I say in my post, it's not just that they're blocking things, it's that they won't tell us what they're blocking so we can do very little about it.

swathi: I'm actually not sure which is scarier - that the government understands what it's doing and is deliberately trying to censor the right to expression of thousands of citizens, or that the government is completely clueless and is lashing out at the first thing it can get its hands on in order to fight terrorism.

radhika: thanks.

starship: I agree. The lifestyle comment was more in response to the quote from the HT which seemed to suggest that it wasn't a big deal if some people couldn't access their blogs. My point is that it may not be a big deal for the guys over at DoT who wouldn't know a blog if it jumped out and bit them, but it's not their business to decide that.

sunbeamz: Yes, you did. Ah, well. We live in hope.

Oz: Thanks - though the credit for the workarounds hardly goes to me.

And yes, I agree about mobius.

n: :-). Just trying not to lose my temper too much. We don't want my radical rabid anti-India alter ego running wild through the streets of Gurgaon do we?

Yes, it's classic isn't it - rather than admit it made a mistake the government will go on perpetuating its initial idiocy.

Aishwarya said...

Good post.

Astha said...

I just can't believe it! Has the Indian government gone completely nuts!!!! Or the babu's just don't understand what the 'net' could have to do with freedom of speech. They probably don't even know the 'b' of blogging.

'Come out and tell us what you're missing from your lives'- do they want people to go on a march?? Is there a way to get through to the government. AAAArrrrrrrghhhhh!


Space Bar said...

I'm not sure I buy the wrong-headed tech-challenged govt. bit. when you consider the number of things that have been happening lately, i can well imagine they would use an incomprehension of technology as a convenient excuse.

there's been a sustained effort to deny independent films a censor certificate for at least three years now.

Falstaff said...

aishwarya: thanks

astha: Yes. It is annoying, isn't it.

space bar: Agree. See my new post.

Neha said...

One of the best posts that I've read on this issue. You put all the arguments so well. I wonder if the government officials will actualyl ever understand that there is no point of the ban since we can still acess the blogs.. just that they've made life a little tougher for us.

thalassa_mikra said...

Falstaff, brilliant post. The best argued, reflective, cogent and makes all the valid points.

By the way, where do I sign up to get one of them carrier pigeons? Imagine, my posts carried every week by pigeons to those who read my blog.

Falstaff said...

neha: Thanks. Though notice that the ban would be pointless even if we could shut us off from our blogs.

TM: Thanks. Am trying not to imagine it, actually. With the frequency with which I post, having to do this through carrier pigeon will mean I'll be in the guano business.

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