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India Bans Secessionist Internet Forum

As of Sep. 23, 2003 the group had 103 members and 33 messages. The group appears to represent the West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. Messages on the forum complain of Indian and Burmese imperialism, India's violent occupation of the region, and India's unwelcome Uranium mining activities and the related pollution caused by radioactive waste. This probably would not have made the news at all were it not for the fact that access to all Yahoo! Groups forums has effectively been blocked. Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Consulting Editor, Mantram wrote on S.A.J.A.'s discussion list, "I think this is the third time that a website has been banned in India . . . the Pakistani newspaper Jang's website was taken off during the Kargil conflict and, earlier, a Kolkata-based website was taken off and it's owner, Shamit Khemka, arrested for apparently slandering Bengalis."

Rediff, Sep. 23, 2003

In an order dated Aug. 10, the Department of Telecommunications at the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, issued an order directing I.S.P.s to block Yahoo! Group kynhun. The order comes from the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (C.E.R.T.-In) under the Department of Information Technology. Through a notification in Jul. this year, the government designated C.E.R.T.-In as the authority for blocking of sites. Jayant Kumar is a director at the Department of Telecommunications. The order bears his signature. When reached, Kumar declined to comment on the order. The government has charged the particular Yahoo! group with 'promoting anti-national news and containing material against Government of India & State Government of Meghalaya.' This directive issued against the Yahoo! group last month is the first such order passed by the government under the Information Technology Act, 2000.

The government's ire has been directed against a group discussing the idea of secession of Meghalaya. Users who have been able to view the group's messages despite the ban, say that it has been created by an outfit called the Ri Hynniewtrep, which supposedly represents an ethnic minority in Meghalaya. The kynhun discussion group was set up on Aug. 10, 2002, under Yahoo!'s 'issues and causes' directory listing. It had barely 25 members, who have posted just about 20 messages. Most messages center around the alleged corruption in the Meghalaya government and discuss how the government has been talking about roads and similar other public utilities that were never built. The group also contains messages about the alleged victimisation of particular minority sections in Meghalaya.

Badri Sheshadri, a subscriber of Dishnet D.S.L. in Chennai, was among the earliest to report that he could not access Yahoo! Groups. Enquiries with Dishnet D.S.L. let Sheshadri on to the secret that the block had been put in place on government orders. However, since Dishnet did not know how to technically block just a particular group, it ended up barring access to all of Yahoo! Groups. Initially, Dishnet did not send out any intimation to its subscribers about the block. But a popup now hangs on the Dishnet site.

Since the order has been given by the Government of India, all I.S.P.s are bound to follow it. According to a source in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the order has been sent out to nearly 400 I.S.P.s in India. However, not all I.S.P.s have blocked it. According to reports, V.S.N.L., Sify, Hathway and many other I.S.P.s have not implemented the order yet. In some cases, Yahoo! Groups India, which is a mirror of Yahoo! Groups, U.S., has not been blocked as a result of which users can still access the messages. According to a note by the Press Information Bureau, Yahoo! has refused to comply with the directive. 'The representatives of Yahoo! in India were requested to remove the objectionable material from the reference, however, they declined to comply with the request,' it said.

The government's order has sparked off a debate on the freedom of expression and the state's interfence in cyberspace. 'What is anti-national to some maybe patriotic to others. For instance, if the British considered Subhas Chandra Bose a fugutive, would we see a ban on the group of Azad Hind Fauj? By similar token, should Palestinian, Sri Lankan and other groups fighting for their homelands be suppressed? Should dialog with things that are 'not in national interest' be banned?' question Ashhar Farhan, who has earlier fought against the then government owned I.S.P. V.S.N.L.'s decision to block Internet telephony sites. Not surprisingly, the government refuses to acknowledge that asking for a ban on the group is a violation of the freedom of expression. Instead, the D.o.T.'s note says, 'Blocking of such Web sites may be equated to 'balanced flow of information' and not censorship.'

The I.T. Act 2000 has no explicit provisions to block sites, unless they promte pornography, slander, racism, gambling, terrorism or violence, which cannot be challenged under laws governing freedom of expression.