Facebook pages, Twitter handles among 300 unique web addresses blocked by ISPs

Over the past week, the Ministry of Communications and IT has sent out orders to ISPs (Internet service providers) to block over 300 unique addresses on the Web, cracking down on websites, Facebook pages, YouTube videos and even Twitter handles, ostensibly to prevent incitement to communal tension and rioting.

But a closer look at the specific URLs (web addresses) blocked by the government has given rise to doubts whether the government may have acted high-handedly, in some instances cracking down on parody Twitter handles.

Through four orders, one issued a day from August 18 to 21, the government sent out lists of specific URLs to be blocked by the Internet service providers.

An analysis of the leaked government orders by blogger Pranesh Prakash of the Center for Internet and Society (www.cis-india.org) revealed the extent of the government missive: in specific cases, it had asked for blocking of some portions of a website — like Facebook pages or Twitter handles — and in other instances asked for entire websites.

The government orders carried no specific reasons for the blockades. But in the backdrop of the paranoia surrounding the exodus of northeast people from South Indian cities, it appears that it may have been to disallow the use of the Web for spreading information that incites communal violence and rioting.

Cyber law expert N. Vijayashankar said though the government seemed to have acted within the Rules of IT Act 2008, the onus fell on it to justify the reasons why the specific websites were blocked and dispel doubts that there may have been some political motives at least pertaining to specific sites, especially in the blocking of some parody Twitter accounts spoofing the official Twitter account of the Prime Minister’s office (@PMOIndia).

“No website can be blocked permanently. Any blocked website must be taken up for review by a committee in a span of two months,” Mr. Vijayashankar added. “But sadly the review committee does not have any public representatives. It comprises only the secretaries to government.”

If the websites had indeed been blocked considering the emergency of the situation and keeping in mind national security, then the responsibility for preparing the list falls with the Home Ministry.

“Whatever be the case, this cannot pave the way for clamping down on websites at one swipe,” Mr. Vijayashankar added.

The news about the clampdown set the social networks abuzz through Thursday. Popular humour Twitter account holder Ramesh Srivats tweeted: “Am slightly worried that some government guy will notice that all the offending sites have “http” in them, and then go ban that.”

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