Who’s The Bird-Brain?

Our government outdoes itself by displaying an exquisitely ham-handed plan to muzzle free speech on the internet.

August 22 was a black day for the twitter world. It seemed the government in its wisdom had decided to block the twitter profiles of at least two journalists and 14 other twitter users – including six who were impersonating our honourable prime minister.

Sacre bleu! A clampdown on free speech, you say? Was this another Emergency? Well, almost. And thanks to the government’s bumbling way of going about it, instead of saving face, they’re too busy wiping the egg off their collective faces right now. On August 22, as reported by PTI, Kapil Sibal said – “We have to make efforts in consultation with the websites and impress upon them to create an institutional mechanism to prevent misuse of technology”. Impress/instruct – it’s all the same.

Kapil Sibal was also reported as saying that it was incorrect that the government had sent out any instructions to block sites/twitter profiles. Sadly, he forgot to inform the prime minister’s communications adviser, Pankaj Pachauri of this official stance. Which is why, on August 23, Pachauri made a statement saying, “Twitter has agreed to block the six fake PM accounts. They responded to our complaint saying we need to follow an internal channel to lodge a formal complaint in the matter.” Boys, really. Just have a word with each other before making these statements.

Anyway, what had triggered off Pachauri’s comment was that on August 22, two journalists – Shiv Aroor and Kanchan Gupta, discovered that they’d been most unceremoniously blocked. Without even a “by your leave”. Instead what they got was a blank page which said “Access to this website has been blocked either pursuant to court orders or on the directions issued by the Department of Telecommunications”.

Could the government get more déclassé? Even Saudi Arabia has a better legal setup to deal with such blocking. They even have a system for redress. At least we can aim for that in our brave new world.

Also, you could no longer log into facebook or youtube or Firstpost or if you were so inclined – www.rina.in –  if you were on Airtel. Which is where the plot gets thicker and the remaining eggs get stuck on that face again. First off, this move was in direct contradiction to what Sibal had said about not sending out instructions to block any internet sites. Second, if you must block a site or a twitter handle – do it right. So if you were on Airtel, you couldn’t see @KanchanGupta or @ShivAroor’s profiles. I really didn’t try to read @SanghPariwar or @DrPravinTogadia’s ids, but I’m sure it was the same case with them. So as a “follower” – one of the most inspired terms on twitter – I was privy to many tweets from the aforementioned blockees, saying that they’d been blocked. Of course, I could tweet to them. It was all most bizarre. And counter-productive for the government to block profiles – which could still keep tweeting to all and sundry that they had been blocked and keep receiving supportive tweets from others, as long as they weren’t on the Airtel network. There was even a hilarious exchange between Gupta and Barkha – who he does niggle a little bit on Twitter – whom he was trying to inform that he was blocked.

So sceptics and confused people aside, the twitter rage against the system was 100 times greater than before they’d blocked it. Maybe no one’s informed the PMO or its IT experts that there are more ISPs than Airtel (although it seems that those using TATA and Vodafone in Mumbai couldn’t access wordpress.com), or that there’re ways around accessing blocked profiles. Or maybe this is some unholy alliance between private ISPs and the government which has now been revealed. Anyway that was self-goal -1.

Pankaj Pachauri in the meantime tweeted the logic behind the blocking. Which made no sense.

Then the plot thickened further. And questions started being raised. The Economic Times in a fell swoop released documents from the Government of India (Ministry of Communication and IT) dated August 20, 2012 instructing all ISPs to immediately block 16 twitter handles as well as 300 websites. And once the media and twitterati had a look at the list, the question kept being bandied about – who had put the list together? All the offending tweeters on the list – and the journalists mentioned – weren’t hate-mongers. But they were strong critics of the government. Was this their real crime? And was this indeed a witch-hunt carried out by one of their own? Who was this parody-averse Congress-loving tweeter-hater who had put together this strange list?

Or is it that everyone’s asking the wrong questions. Instead of who compiled the government’s strange list, maybe we should ask if there was a hidden Schindler in our midst? A Schindler who had got doomed journalists off the government list and kept them safe in the Twitter world.

While we are figuring that out, we’d suggest that Airtel gets its PR team on the task and releases a statement on why it didn’t hesitate to block ISPs and urls and didn’t even bother to let its customers know that they were going to do so. And our only words for the wise sages of the PMO, is good luck and god speed.


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