Hackers collective Anonymous makes a debut across India as ‘OpIndia' targets online censorship

Online hackers collective Anonymous, that has gained global attention for its symbolism and high-profile tactics, made its public presence felt across the country on Saturday, as volunteers took to the streets to register their protests over growing concerns of Internet censorship.

The ‘OpIndia' protest gained more traction in some cities than others — notably New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore — as groups of youths dressed up in black suits and sported the iconic Guy Fawkes mask. They carried placards and raised slogans against the government's alleged attempts at backdoor censorship online. In some cases, they made up for the lack of numbers by showing some flair in dressing up iconic figures in the protest clothes.

The street protests were peaceful. The group, however, waged a virtual war online since the stroke of midnight on Friday, as it upped the ante to bring down intermittently two government websites - www.india.gov.in and www.cert-in.org.in. The two identified Twitter handles of Anonymous India, exhorted volunteers to launch DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks. It turned out to be a cat and a mouse game as the Twitter accounts got disabled, and Anonymous continued to operate through new accounts.

Free Software Foundation, Tamil Nadu, one of the groups that pledged support in Chennai, distanced itself from DDoS attacks. But it noted in a pamphlet distributed to the public that the protests were specifically over developments that sought to curb freedom of expression online: Section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 that would allow government officials and investigating agencies to listen in to all phone calls, SMSs and emails even without a warrant from a Magistrate; and Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 through which “Government has enacted laws that gives it a free pass to censor Facebook posts, listen to every Skype conversation, monitor tweets or blogs or access private photographs and documents stored online, or track locations using mobile phone to keep under surveillance all of our online activity.”

Protesters said they were not willing to buy Union Minister Kapil Sibal's explanations about “self-regulation” online and saw the government moves, including some amendments in the Indian Copyright Amendment Bill (2012), as an attempt at backdoor censorship.

There were not enough provisions to safeguard Internet intermediaries — like search engines or file-sharing sites — whereas the amendments vested disproportionate powers with those who might complain of violations. The recent John Doe order by the Madras High Court over an anti-piracy complaint that eventually led to the blocking of some file-sharing and video-sharing networks seems to have been the tipping point for the protests.

More In: National | News | Chennai