As of yesterday, the Tata Photon service of the Internet service provider (ISP) Tata Teleservices seems to have lifted the block it had put on the WordPress.com domain for over a week. Tech2 had reported on Saturday that the free platform of WordPress was put under a blanket block across India by the ISP following government orders to block around 309 URLs carrying disruptive or inflammatory content. Directives issued by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to ISPs between August 18 and 21 state that only the URLs mentioned be blocked, not entire domains. Users could neither view WordPress blogs nor edit or post new content on them, the first instance of which was noticed by us on August 20.
Our repeated efforts to contact Tata Teleservices' officials drew a blank. Numerous users who contacted customer service did not receive any replies or resolution. Through the course of the blockade, the ISP did not even display any message to WordPress visitors that the domain was blocked, nor did it notify the owners of WordPress blogs about it. Puzzled users tried resetting their Internet connections, clearing DNS caches, and calling the customer service helpline only to realise that they were experiencing an ISP-level block.
Tata Teleservices was 'pressed for words' when customers tried to contact it
The reactions of WordPress users ranged from annoyance to distress. Human rights activist and lawyer Kamayani Bali Mahabal commented on Tech2, “Yes, my wordpress blog is blocked and I have 4 blogs…have also written to TATA. I can access through [an] anonymous browser but I cannot log in, edit and do admin functions, I can do about 50 percent work on my blog. Dashboard not accessible[,] barely manage to post, will be suing TATA soon”. In a blog post, she has described her experience of the block.
Blogger Shantanu Adhicary who goes by the nom de blog Tantanoo says, “My blogs are self-hosted [on WordPress] so I was not affected. But it was annoying that I was unable to access, read or comment on other WordPress blogs, especially in the absence of any message whatsoever that this site has been blocked”.
The move by Tata Teleservices is being seen as ham handed; around 25 million WordPress blogs were made inaccessible to deal with a few rotten eggs. Blogger and social media consultant Prateek Shah opines, “Blanket bans on domains because content on some of their pages is objectionable are akin to jailing a certain section of society just because some people from the community broke the law. WordPress plays an extremely important role on the Internet and if such a site were to go down even for a few hours, it would mean mayhem for bloggers as well as readers who count on the platform to get the latest updates and information. ISPs need to mature and grow up to the fact that one can't put millions of people in jeopardy when apparently trying to protect the interests of some”.
In June, the Madras High Court had granted relief to netizens in India by urging that there be no more John Doe orders. “The order of interim injunction dated 25/04/2012 is hereby clarified that the interim injunction is granted only in respect of a particular URL where the infringing movie is kept and not in respect of the entire website. Further, the applicant is directed to inform about the particulars of URL where the interim movie is kept within 48 hours.”
Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director at Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), agrees the move was wrong but shares insights about the position of the ISPs. He says, “It was obviously wrong. It contravenes the government's orders to not block the base URL but individual pages. Action should be taken against them for causing inconvenience to users. This is not the first time an ISP has gone overboard in implementing censorship, be it copyright issues, piracy or inflammatory content. In 2006, the government had chastised ISPs for over-censoring content and blocking unintended websites and pages. Having said that, ISPs have numerous grouses against the government. They do not possess the technical capabilities to implement the government's orders, at times, whether about surveillance or censorship”.
ISPs that are also telecom services providers, find themselves unable to decipher government notifications about shutting off content on the Internet or introducing curbs on mobile communication. Prakash's analysis of the 300-odd URLs blocked by the Indian government reveals glaring mistakes in the government directives “that made blocking pointless and effectual”. When asked to opine about what ISPs and telcos should do when the orders from the government were not crystal clear, Prakash said, “They should ask for clarifications from the government. The operators sought clarifications from the Ministry of Telecommunications about the recent orders to ban bulk text messages and MMSes. The ministry was unable to resolve them, and in turn, sought further clarifications from the Home Ministry. The government should coordinate better”.
Tata Teleservices was not the only ISP guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sify too reportedly imposed a blanket block on the WordPress domain. Airtel went overboard by temporarily blocking Youtu.be URLs last week citing orders by the court or the DoT.