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Big Brother turns gaze from porn to debates


Saturday 27 September 2003, by MINWALLA*Shabnam

Article paru dans le Times of India, ?dition en ligne du 27 septembre 2003.

MUMBAI: What do GSR 529(E), OM No 25022/40/97/F.IV and CS No 1/116/5/98/TS have in common? All three are recent government orders aimed at stifling public discussion of a "sensitive" nature.

Order No GSR 529(E) - the newest pair of scissors in a censorship-happy nation - gained notoriety this week when Netizens found themselves barred from their favourite sports and software discussion groups. Brandishing the July 7 notification, the government instructed Internet Service Providers to block ’Kynhun’, a virtually moribund Yahoo group that carried 33 postings about Meghalaya’s disenchantment with the Indian state. Unable to barricade only that particular group, VSNL, Sify and Dishnet DSL denied access to all Yahoo groups - a move that generated much consternation.

"The government has given itself sweeping powers to police Internet content and demonstrated it is willing to use them," said Somasekhar Sundaresan, a lawyer specialising in technology issues. "What makes it worse is that rather than acting with transparency and explaining why it was necessary, ISPs were ordered to block ’Kynhun’ without being given facts or reasons. All of which creates fear of a police raj."

What has most alarmed freedom-of-speechniks is that this is not a random instance. Increasingly, Big Brother is turning his gaze from pornography to political debates and ideological differences. "In isolation, such cases seem innocuous, but when you view them across media, a pattern is evident," said film-maker Rakesh Sharma. "The scripts of plays have to be okayed by the police. Television channels routinely get calls from the authorities. Every space available to independent voices is now under threat - from the Internet to documentary films."

A couple of months ago, the Mumbai International Film Festival made censorship clearance a prerequisite for participation. This is contrary to international norms. Protests by filmmakers compelled the government to back down last week, but in most similar situations the government has remained adamant.

Although its two notifications, OM No 25022/40/97/F.IV issued in September 2000 and CS No 1/116/5/98/TS issued in January 2003, generated controversy in academia, they remain firmly in place. As a result, foreign scholars invited to participate in conferences of a "political, semi-political, communal or religious nature" are now vetted by the ministry of home affairs.

But once these notifications are issued, are they implemented seriously? Is it really possible for the government to quell multiple points of view in an age of multiple media? "There are always things that mustn’t be written and talked about," said computer guru Vijay Mukhi. "But even America has been unable to censor Osama on the Net. So we need an alternate strategy to outwit technology."

"Attempts at control are being made around the world and are symptomatic of a greater sense of alarm," echoes Rahul Matthan, a Bangalore-based lawyer specialising in Net-related issues. "But the Internet is built to resist control and at most governments can make a site a little harder to access."

The anti-censorship brigade agrees the trend has to be countered. Civil libertarians are planning to challenge the order that permits bureaucrats to block websites and, to compound matters, cloak the process in confidentiality.

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