Internet blocking, and banning cartoons and cricket matches are bully-boy tactics that substitute for debate and erode liberties
Hacker Group Anonymous :: Is this the John Doe or Ashok Kumar of the application to the Madras High Court?
Perhaps it’s the summer heat, this silly season in which everyone seems infected. The time was when our leaders were thinkers, or at least capable of rational thought. No longer, alas. Today bullying substitutes for liberty, and banning substitutes for debate.
Lone voices in this wilderness, at the other end of the spectrum, are those of an Information Commissioner and of the Delhi High Court ordering the disclosure of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel’s report. The report was commissioned by the Central Government’s Ministry of Environment & Forests. It was submitted last year and large portions of it have been freely available for download on the Internet. But the Central Government argues that the disclosure of this report is not in the public interest; and the public release must be banned. The report itself is still under consideration. Various State Governments are yet to send in their comments on its recommendations. The Central Government may well reject the report and choose not to be bound by it. Why seek a ban on its disclosure? The measured, reasoned tone of the Delhi High Court’s order — the kind of stuff of which the best judgements are made — rubbished the Central Government’s stand. “The endeavour of the petitioner appears to be to withhold the WGEEP report so as to curb participation of the civil society and the interested environmental groups as also the common man who is likely to be affected by the policy as eventually framed in the debate that should take place before the policy is formulated.”1
Curb participation of civil society and the common man. These words are important for they tell us precisely what has gone wrong, and how; of the now unbridgeable gap between governance and despotism; of the corruption of power and business.
The perverse influence of business interests on civil liberties constantly takes new forms. On 29 March, the Madras High Court passed an ex-parte “John Doe” injunction on an application by R K Productions Pvt Ltd. This is a company that owns the rights to a Tamil movie, “3”, most notable for the song “Why this Kolaveri-di?”. The producers sought a blanket ban against infringement of their copyright in the movie — prohibiting the unlicensed sharing in any manner of any part of the film. The targets were several Internet Service Providers and five unknown persons, all named “Ashok Kumar”, all described as “Unknown Person, India”. None of the ISPs were heard before the order was passed.2 The curious thing about this application is that it seeks to ban the very thing that gave the song, and therefore the film, publicity; the song went viral on the Internet.
The order itself appears to be unexceptionable. It is not the first of its kind, either here or abroad. Roe v Wade, for instance, used a pseudonym to protect the identity of the woman involved.3 In 2011, the Kolkata High Court passed a similar order at the instance of Reliance BIG Pictures for its movie, Singham.4 There have also been other orders relating to music sharing services.
The problem is not with the Madras High Court’s order, which, in any case, is restricted “until further orders”, and ISPs can immediately apply to court for a recall or a modification or clarification, or file an appeal. Why none have done so yet is unclear. The trouble lies with the application itself, and the way in which the order is being interpreted.
Not one file sharing or torrent site is named in the order. More importantly, the application does not name the one authority that does, arguably, have the power to order site blocking: CERT-In, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology. But CERT-In’s website gives no indication that it has any such power either; it claims to be an advisory service directed to internet security. RK Productions copyright issues are not a security problem. Also, there is nothing on the CERT-In site to indicate that it has directed the blocking of any internet file sharing or torrent sites. And CERT-In is not even a party to RK Productions’ application.
ISPs cannot block sites unless they are so directed; and the directions must be site-specific. There are no such directions in the Madras High Court order. That order cannot possibly be interpreted to mean that every ISP must immediately become an Internet bloodhound, constantly shutting down sites. Internet blocking is futile, like shouting in the wind; the same material will pop up again and again elsewhere, and bypassing the blocks is a trivial matter. As of this evening, one major ISP claims to have “blocked” several torrent/file sharing sites — an attempt to access the site results only in a message that the site has been blocked under orders of the Competent Authority. Two problems. One, there is no such order by the Competent Authority (CERT-In). Two, the block can be bypassed. Worse, the block only affects the accessing of the page in a browser. Actual downloading, via a ‘torrent client’, from the very same sites that are claimed to be blocked, continues uninterrupted.
In demanding this — more openness and freedom for the Internet — we are in excellent company. An article today in the New York Times by Vinton Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet” demands exactly this. Writing about the forthcoming International Telecommunications Union summit in Dubai later this year, Cerf says:
The decisions taken in Dubai in December have the potential to put government handcuffs on the Net. To prevent that — and keep the Internet open and free for the next generations — we need to prevent a fundamental shift in how the Internet is governed.
Who needs these John Doe orders most? Clearly those with substandard products unlikely to earn significant revenue. The Hunger Games and The Avengers, both recent films, have made lots of money. Neither needed injunctions against the world at large to succeed at the box office. Perhaps what ISPs should do, in protest, is immediately block the RK Productions website; and everything that refers to the film “3” or the song.
Like the arguments before the Delhi High Court on the WGEEP case, like politicians’ demands for banning cartoons and cricket matches, applications for John Doe injunctions are, ultimately, nothing more than bully-boy tactics for self-serving reasons. They do not serve the public interest in any manner. The only thing to do with bans is, well, to ban them.
MUMBAI: Hacker group Anonymous OpIndia attacked ISP (Internet Service Provider) Reliance Communications on Friday night and Saturday. Users of the service who tried to access popular websites like Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and Gmail instead saw a message from the hackers announcing their protest against their “freedom being taken away”.
Anonymous OpIndia has previously attacked portals of the government and private organizations to protest against all kinds of censorship. The attack on R-Com was triggered when Anonymous India’s found its Twitter account had been blocked.
Among other things, the message displayed to Reliance users said, “We tried to do a slow, non-violent protest and government decided to cover our mouths. We will not sit idle while our freedom is taken away. When we started to speak the truth, the government of India forced our online Twitter account @Opindia_revenge to be suspended.”
The message went on to attack private organizations, the government, opposition parties as well as and the media. However, it also had links to redirect users to the site they were trying to access. Releasing admin logs from servers they hacked at http://pastehtml.com/view/bz8kycy0o.html, Anonymous OpIndia alleged that Reliance had blocked certain web pages, including the Facebook pages of staff protesting against Air India.
“We have investigated the matter and confirm that all R-Com servers and websites are intact and have required preventive measures in place for intrusions,” said a Reliance Communications spokesperson.
Anonymous OpIndia also issued an ultimatum to the government to unblock all file-sharing websites as well as any other website that might have been restricted by ISPs and the government. The group has set up a Facebook page titled ‘Occupy India #protest for internet freedom (File Sharing Websites Blocked)’, which calls for a physical protest next month.
Speaking to TOI, Anonymous said, “June 9 is the deadline for the government to unblock the sites - all of them. If they will not do it, they will be badly hit by us. A lot of defacements of government websites will happen. Many physical protests will take place.”
Dr Gulshan Rai, Director-General at Computer Emergency Response Team India (CERT-In), said, “The government is not involved in the blocking of websites. It was an order issued by the courts and the government has had no part in it.”
Responding to the ultimatum from Anonymous, he said, “I deplore the threats issued by the hackers and the attacks carried out by them on IT infrastructure over the past weeks. We will protect all the government websites from any hacker attacks, as we have done in the past.”
Perhaps it's the summer heat, this silly season in which everyone seems infected. The time was when our leaders were thinkers, or at least capable of rational thought. No longer, alas. Today bullying substitutes for liberty, and banning substitutes for debate.