Censorship and Incompetence

on Posted by Rajesh J Advani
I could choose to be angry about this. I could choose to find it irritating. Or I could just choose to find it funny. But it's not really funny. And I'm tired of being angry or irritated. So let me just be philosophizing.

I'm sure most of you already know what I'm going to say, but let me make it a little clearer.

First there were the 7 bomb blasts in trains in Mumbai. (Full coverage here) A lot of people died, a lot more were injured, and everyone around the world knew about the blasts in a couple of hours. That's the kind of thing the internet and satellite TV makes possible in this information-hungry world. There was no censorship at the time. In fact, some people felt that news channels should think twice about the content they choose to broadcast. That was on the 11th of July. Tuesday.

Then there was the amazing work done by the World Wide Help group at the Mumbai Help blog in coordinating relief efforts, as well as just simply providing information to those who needed it. There's that word again. Information. Remember it. I'm going to use it again.

Fast forward a few days. It's the 15th of July. A Saturday. (Not Sunday - which is the day to drink before sunset.)

Reports are coming in of people not being able to access blogs on Blogspot - which by the way, is the domain that hosts the World Wide Help and Mumbai Help blogs (and of course, in case you forgot, this blog too). People wonder if it is a couple of ISPs specifically blocking the *.blogspot.com domain. At this point, all there is, is a lack of information. See? That word again. I told you I'd use it. But wait. I'm not done yet.

Time passes, more domains (including but not limited to *.geocities.com and *.typepad.com) appear to be blocked, and the problem spreads to most ISPs around the country. There are rumours that this is the result of a directive from the Indian government to ISPs. This is confirmed on speaking to the customer service departments of various ISPs. A number of bloggers cover the issue and suggest workarounds. Even the mainstream media jumps in. And the issue goes international.

Soon, it starts to appear that the Indian government didn't ask to block blogspot.com or any of the other domains. Apparently the list of sites that should have been blocked numbers 18 specific URLs. Some of these may be specific blogs, and some of them may be other websites or pages. Not entire domains.

Then what's wrong? Why can't people reach Mumbai Help? Or India Uncut?

Well, apparently the ISPs couldn't figure out how to block specific subdomains, and so ended up blocking the entire domain in each case.

Yes, I was tempted to laugh too.

There are two important aspects to the problem here. One is Censorship, and the other is Incompetence.

Let's tackle Censorship first. As Neha says (and she says it very well; you should listen to her, there's a very smart brain in that head), let's not use euphemisms. Let's call it censorship. Because that's what it is. It's not "balanced flow of information" as CERT-IN wants us to believe. What it is, is "an infringement on our right to information". Even if that information is an instruction manual on building your very own hand-grenade.

Censorship is based on the idea that there are two kinds of information. Good information and Bad information. Bad information is the kind that puts the wrong tools in the wrong hands, spreads fear, doubt, and all those other things that your average government worries about. Most people wouldn't argue too much against censorship of Bad information. And that is where the problem lies.

Too many people try to keep their children away from information about sex and contraception, because they believe that doing this protects their children. A lot of people now believe that early sex education is the only solution for tackling problems like AIDS and teenage pregnancies. What parents do, is censorship. They deny their children information, when the only real solution is to supply even more information.

And that's what the government does. It provides the wrong solution. A solution that does more harm than good. Which brings me to the second point, Incompetence.

I'm sure a number of people out there have shifted the blame from the government to the ISPs, who don't know enough to do their job well. A block on a specific blogspot or geocities site becomes a block on the domain. Those network engineers just don't know their job, do they? They're all a bunch of fools. No?

Don't deny it. There's at least a small part of you that thought this, at least for a small amount of time.

Well, yes, not being able to block specific sites does seem to be a sign of incompetence, at least to us geeks who think we know more than we actually do. I can't imagine why it's so impossible to block a specific sub-domain. But then what do I know about the how their servers are set up?

No, I wasn't referring to the incompetence of the ISPs, though I'm tempted to. I was referring to the incompetence of the government.

Let's make an assumption, which starts of giving all the credit to the government. (For the record, I'm not making all this up. It seems to be the gist of the speculation about the government's motive behind blocking those sites.) Let's say some terrorist group has been using some blogs and other web-sites to pass on information to their cell networks. This mode of communication must be cut. Or we could be looking at another set of bomb blasts in some other part of the country. So the government identifies 18 specific URLs that are key to stopping this mode of communication. It then uses the word "government directive" to enforce a block on these URLs, which is eventually implemented by most ISPs in a couple of days.

Let's say that the ISPs had not botched up. Let's assume that the block had been only on these specific URLs. What exactly would that have achieved?

When trying to control the exit of a felon from a city, all the exits are monitored, and every vehicle passing out is checked. When terrorist groups are using cell-phones to communicate, lines are tapped. What the police doesn't do, is revoke the felon's driver's license. Or disconnect the terrorist groups' cellphone subscriptions. Because the police knows from experience that this is not really going to work. What is required is to use even better technology to beat the criminal at his own game. If the bad guys have information, then what the good guys need is to get even more information.

Then why does the government not seem to understand this in matters of technology? Why didn't the government instead, decide to monitor access to these URLs instead, and try to find people who were frequenting these sites. Or why don't they try to identify cities, towns or villages where there seems to be a higher probability of hate-fuelled unrest? Why does the government opt for the simpler and less effective solution when it comes to the internet?

The fact is, that however much we may wish to claim that India is playing an important part in the technology revolution and that every important new technology has at least one Indian behind it, back home we're still struggling to use technology to solve problems. Whether it be stopping terrorism, or irrigating our fields.

It all comes down to information. We need it. A lot of it. And we need it a lot more than we realize.

Staying Safe

Posted by Rajesh J Advani
For a couple of hours after I found about the recent blasts in Bombay, I was in a boiling rage. "They've attacked my home", I thought. "They've attacked my family". I wanted to get back at them in any way possible. For a couple of hours, I understood why so many Americans gladly supported bombing out Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

I've always had this talent for being stoic about bad things that happen around me, as long as they don't actually happen to me. Of course I worry about them at times, and try to think up solutions to some of these problems, but I generally don't get too worked up about them. Call me selfish. Or call me a guy with a short attention span.

But this time, they struck too close for comfort. As soon as I found out (11:00am EST, 8:30pm IST - the world really is growing smaller isn't it?), I remembered that my brother takes a train between Andheri and Borivali everyday to travel to and from work. I got through to him on his cellphone pretty easily (considering that people even locally were having trouble reaching each other), but the first words he said to me were "Rajesh, I can't reach Daddy."

Apparently, my father had gone to South Bombay for some Annual General body meeting. He's retired, spends most of his time close to home, and usually drives wherever he needs to go. The last thing I'd expected was for him to be using the trains. After about an hour of telling each other that he never travels by first class on the trains, and that he'd never travel by train during peak hours, and that he usually takes the bus, and that the fact that his phone was ringing, meant the phone was okay, and if the phone was okay, it meant he was okay, and that he never answers his cellphone anyway, my father reached home safe. He'd spent three hours in a bus trying to get home.

The simple fact is, that when you hit the mode of transport that is used by a majority of the city's residents, and you hit it at peak time, those 186 dead and 714 injured, could be anyone. They could be your brother, your aunt, or that guy you went to school with, that friend you made last year at a conference, the girl you've been wanting to ask out for weeks, your Maths teacher... anyone.

I work in Manhattan these days, and the blasts were immediately noticed by New Yorkers who've been hearing rumours about terrorists targetting New York's subway system. Suddenly those rumours seem a lot more possible.

Of course, in India we have the additional worry that an incident like this could be used by political parties and/or jobless youth to spread even more fear and kill/injure even more people. Even though our cities generally tend to show solidarity rather communal disharmony in such situations, the political climate in the country tends to give rise to fear anyway. A few hours after the blasts, everyone was expecting riots in the city.

Anyway. The important thing is to ensure that it's a lot tougher for terrorists to do something like this again. But what?

While I don't think that it is feasible for the police force of any city to keep an eye on every single spot where a bomb could be hidden, I think the statements by bloggers and journalists that indicate "it's impossible to stop such terrorism", are too simplistic.

After 9/11, every train station, and every airport in New York asks passengers to be vigilant and "report suspicious behaviour". These messages are broadcast on public announcement systems, and seem to be more frequent when intelligence reports indicate a higher risk of attacks. The police force has only so many eyeballs. What we need to do is get the public involved. And by that, I don't mean beating up the next guy you find wearing a turban, a beard or just unwashed clothes.

We need hotlines that people can call up to leave reports of people doing suspicious things, or suspicious looking packages in public places. We need to confiscate every bag left unattended for more than 30 seconds in a public place. We need a police force that can work hard enough to look into at least 80-90% of these reports for the first couple of weeks. Initially, the number of false reports will be very high. Paranoia and the general excitement of having a forum to voice your suspicions to, will cause that. But soon that will die down. And we will need to repeatedly broadcast messages for people to keep their eyes open, and to tell someone about anything that might seem important. God knows how many people die in terrorist attacks, because the few people who did notice something ignored it because they had to get to a meeting, or catch a train, and didn't think it was important, or didn't know how to let someone know.

We need to go to every school out there and tell children to keep their eyes open. Any parent will tell you how observant children can be. And how much smarter than us adults.

Make it easy for people to drop a report. Ensure that any cellphone can call that number. Let it get recorded on voice-mail. Allow people to send SMSes. It might help if the person making the call thinks they won't have to waste time "speaking to someone". At the same time, give them the choice of a human interface.

You never know what someone might notice next.