Last week hacker collective Anonymous turned its attention to India and to what some have called India’s “long murky past” of Internet censorship. The organization launched “Operation India” on Thursday, May 17 with attacks that took down the websites of the Supreme Court of India, All India Congress, the Department of Telecomm, and the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications. On May 19, India’s governmental cybersecurity organization, Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), fell victim to cyber attacks, as did the website of media subsidiary Reliance Big Entertainment. What links these targets is a shared history of censoring websites in India.
Indian web filtering has been ongoing essentially since the beginning of the Indian web itself. In 1999, during the Kargil war, the country’s foremost ISP blocked the site of Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Subsequently the Indian Parliament created CERT-In, to which they gave the vague task of maintaining a “balanced flow of information” online. With that open-ended mandate, CERT-In has ordered the blocking of many sites, sometimes for “defamatory” content and other times for perceived threats to the government. In 2003, for example, CERT-In requested the blockage of a Yahoo! Groups page affiliated with a Khasi militant group; ISPs responded by blocking all Yahoo! Groups for two weeks.
In December 2011 The New York Times reported that the Indian government had “asked Internet companies and social media sites like Facebook to prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online.” In January, a judge in New Delhi “raised eyebrows” by stating that “‘like China,’ India might be compelled to block certain Web sites that contained obscene or offensive material.”
Restricting offensive content, however, had no role in the recent blockage of popular video sharing site Vimeo. As reported by The New York Times, “Indian and foreign media companies, including Reliance Entertainment, which is controlled by billionaire Anil Ambani, Viacom and UTV Group, appear to have sparked the block by filing a series of lawsuits in Indian courts related to movie piracy.”
Early last week, customers of two major Indian telecommunications companies—Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications (which, like Reliance Entertainment, is controlled by Mr. Ambani)—were unable to access Vimeo, The Pirate Bay (following its blockage in the UK and Netherlands), DailyMotion.com, BitSnoop.Com, and others. Instead, visitors received a message that the sites had been blocked due to court order.
That entire sites were blocked is due to several factors. The litigation brought by Mr. Ambani was certainly the precipitating factor, but according to Reliance Entertainment, they requested only that their content be blocked, not entire sites: “Unfortunately ISPs just want to block the entire site because it’s less work than to identify content individually,” said Sanjay Tandon, vice president of music and anti-piracy.
Affected sites were largely accessible again by the end of the week, and the Times May 18 report reflects, “Why the telecommunications companies chose to block the sites this week and the Indian government’s role in the situation are both unclear.” The report continues, “A spokesman for the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications, which oversees Internet regulation in India, said the ministry has ‘not issued any order blocking any Web site.’”
The blocking of video sharing sites was not the only reason Anonymous likely targeted India. India Today notes that the Anonymous attacks directly followed the announcement of a new plan to censor the Indian Internet:
The proposed plan for censorship pushes for a government-run 50-member body to control the web. The government’s web takeover plan has already been placed before the United Nations (UN). The UN is expected to discuss the proposal in the next 72 hours. The proposal would end “equal say” process for internet governance and push the civil society to the fringes. The proposed Committee for Internet Related Polices (CIRP) would be 50-member body funded by the UN. It would meet once a year and would have the power to oversee all internet standards bodies.
It remains to be seen whether these attacks will lead to any policy changes in India, or whether it will only serve to further embolden the ISPs, government, and entertainment companies.