A Blot on Government’s Tech-savvy Image
India’s ham-handed bureaucracy gave us a sharp reminder about how much things have to change before government catches up with a rapidly changing world, when it ordered a blanket ban on 32 global sites on 31st December. Clearly, having a technology and social-media-savvy prime minister is not enough; it will take a long time before Narendra Modi can get government officials to move away from the ‘block, ban, censor’ (BBC) mindset, to use Modi-like acronyms. Last year, the UPA government had blocked 200 sites on a single day and had to backtrack hurriedly when it led to a huge uproar.
This time was no different. The 32 sites were blocked under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. The ban was apparently based on inputs from security agencies that someone had uploaded ‘suspected ISIS’ content on them. Following the advisory, the government ordered Internet-service providers (ISPs) to ‘immediately block access’ to the sites.
The list, which has been widely circulated in the media, included GitHub, Archive.org, Imgur, Vimeo, Daily Motion, sourceforge and Pastebin. There was no statement from the government about why the sites were blocked even a day later. Instead, Arvind Gupta, national head of BJP’s IT cell, had tweeted that the sites were blocked for carrying ‘objectionable content’ and those who ‘cooperate and remove ISIS content will be unblocked’. An advisory from the anti-terrorism squad had said that the sites carried anti-India content from ISIS (Islamic States of Iraq and Syria). However, there is nothing to indicate that any of the sites was approached to remove specific content or that the blanket ban was triggered by their refusal to ‘cooperate’.
Clearly the information technology ministry and the security agencies need to work out a plan of action on how to deal with security threats and a protocol to ensure cooperation to remove or trace the source of objectionable content or block individual accounts and urls, when national security is threatened. While there is a clear consensus that tracking terrorist activity is a global imperative, it is not fair to expect websites, or their users, to operate under the threat of sudden blanket bank.
In a modern world, where users, especially registered users, are free to post content and reviews, the government’s drastic action poses a huge and financially damaging business risk. What is worse, a day later, there was no indication that the government understood the enormity of the damage it had caused by its action. TechCrunch, a technology blog, calls GitHub an essential service to the tech industry. It says that blocking GitHub, code repository with millions of registered users, would lead to an uproar in the tech industry in India, given its importance to tech companies and coders. If the government can ban GitHub or Vimeo, which is a video streaming site like YouTube, there is nothing to stop mindless government officials from issuing similar orders against global giants of the tech world.
The Union Cabinet approved the eighth ordinance in the government's seven months