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Don't Panic. But Be Afraid.

Be very afraid. For your government does not know what to do, even when it comes to what it calls 'national interest'.

It defied biology. It was not dead, but rigor mortis had set in. Yet knees jerked, if only spasmodically. But that too was weeks later...

Something like this is perhaps how one would describe the last few months under UPA government. 

Let's leave the horrendous violence in Assam for a minute, and just look at a very partial and random list from the last one month or so:

July 19: Pakistani blogger Faraz Ahmed wrote in the Express Tribune about how hateful messages were being spread in Pakistan by misrepresenting fake photos: Social Media Is Lying to You about Burma’s Muslim ‘Cleansing’

July 20: The very same article was reproduced by the widely read New Age Islam with a clear warning: After Instigating Conflicts With Christians, Jews And Hindus, Do Islamists Now Want Muslims To Fight Buddhists: Social Media Is Lying to You about Burma’s Muslim ‘Cleansing’

The expose is widely discussed on Twitter.

August 5: Ayesha Siddiqa wrote about this in Kafila

August 11: In Mumbai, in the words of Teesta and Javed Anand, "a Muslim mob behaved in despicable fashion — torching OB vans, attacking media persons and the police, molesting women constables, snatching arms from the police — in the backdrop of a rally at Azad Maidan last Saturday, to protest atrocities against Muslims in Assam and in Myanmar." [For another take on this protest, check this rejoinder by Madhu Trehan: Bending over backwards]

August 13: Yusuf Saeed, in Kafila once again, mentions the possible role played by the same sort of photos that had been warned against by Faraz Ahmed on July 19:

from the Internet these pictures were picked up by many Urdu newspapers from Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi and printed with inflammatory titles and headlines. Many new caricatures and info-graphics started appearing on Facebook ridiculing the “peaceful” image of Buddhists or the “silence” of Burmese leader Aung Suu Kyi on the carnage of Rohingya Muslims and so on.

August 16: The news of a serious exodus of Northeastern people from Bangalore hits the headlines. We hear the PM saying at an iftaar:

We must work together to ensure that all people from other states do not feel threatened by rumour mongering and SMSes. We have to maintain peace at any cost"

But the same report also talks about:

Special trains were also being operated by the Railways amid reports that people from the northeast in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune were also returning home.

[Surely someone at the centre should have wondered whether a better way would be to reach out to the wanting-to-flee Northeasterners, and not provide them special trains?  But we digress]

August 18: The home secretary says: Bulk of Anti-NE Rumours Sourced From Pak

Bulk of the rumours that triggered panic among people of northeastern states in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra were sourced from Pakistan, Union Home Secretary R K Singh said today.

"A total of 76 websites were identified where morphed images were uploaded and bulk of these were uploaded in Pakistan," Singh told PTI.

"We believe it is highly reprehensible. I think it needs to be made known to everybody that this is something that is being done from Pakistan. The bulk of it has been done from Pakistan," he said.

He said all these websites have since been blocked. As a step towards rumours being spread, Government has imposed a 15-day ban on bulk SMSes and MMSes.

No official list as yet is available of the websites sought to be banned.

But then came a preliminary — but painstakingly thorough and brilliant— analysis by Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society, based on a leaked list of the websites sought to be blocked — (Communalism & Rioting Edition) — from August 18, 2012 till August 21, 2012 which I fully endorse, other than what it calls the "goodness of the government's intentions."

But for a minute, like Pranesh Prakash, let's consider the "goodness of the government's intentions" as "unquestionable." Let's first assume that what the government wanted banned should have been banned. As Pranesh Prakash notes:

There are circumstances in which freedom of speech and expression may legitimately be limited. The circumstances that existed in Bangalore could justifiably result in legitimate limitations on freedom of speech...

However it is unclear whether the government has exercised its powers responsibly in this circumstance. The blocking of many of the items on that list are legally questionable and morally indefensible, even while a some of the items ought, in my estimation, to be removed.

Then it emerged on where else?Twitter late night on July 22 that of the many Twitter handles sought to be banned by the government, at least two belonged to prominent mainstream journalists, viz. Kanchan Gupta and Shiv Aroor, among many other bloggers widely categorised as "Internet Hindus", as many people reported that these Twitter accounts were showing the message:

"This website/URL has been blocked until further notice either pursuant to Court orders or on the Directions issued by the Department of Telecommunications"

But and this is the important butthe pages continued to be available if one was using Twitter through a client (on your desktop, mobile, etc.) instead of the web interface or just used https instead of http in the URL. Those such as your correspondent regularly using Tweetdeck etc would not have known about these "bans" unless alerted by others trying to access Twitter on the web.

In effect, what it means is that AFTER August 18 when the government decided to ban and block, what it has been able to do is frankly a big zilch, other of course than making a laughing stock of itself.

For now, let's not even get into what accounts for the "egregious mistakes" such as the above that Pranesh Prakash notes, important as they are for any partisan of freespeech:

  1. Most importantly, some even people and posts debunking rumours have been blocked.
  2. Some of the Twitter accounts are of prominent people who write for the mainstream media, and who have written similar content offline. If their online content is being complained about, their offline content should be complained about too.
  3. Quite a number of the links include articles published and reports broadcast in the mainstream media (including a Times Now report, a Telegraph picture gallery, etc.), and in print, making the blocks suspect. Only the online content seems to have been targeted for censorship.

For the time being, let's assume that there was a national emergency and the government wanted to block these sites. Ask anybody who has reported an abusive account to Facebook/Twitter and they would tell you that these two in particular are responsive to reported abuse. 

Even Twitter clearly indicated as much:

It has told the PMO that it could not take action earlier "because the government entity did not intimate through proper procedure electronically to our system and hence the request was not located," sources said.

Twitter said it was "now actively reviewing" the request and will be seeking additional information from the Ministry of Communication and IT "to locate the unlawful content and the specific unlawful tweet", they said.

"India is important to us and we would like to have clearer communication in these matters in future," the communication said, adding that Twitter should be put in touch with appropriate departments in this regard.

As Pranesh Prakash notes in his thorough (though on-going) analyis:

Given that the majority of the information it is targeting is on Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, the government could have chosen to fight alongside those services to get content removed expeditiously, rather than fight against them. (There are some indications that the government might be working with these services, but it certainly isn't doing enough.)

For instance, it could have asked all of them to expedite their complaints mechanism for a few days, by ensuring that the complaints mechanism is run 24x7 and that they respond quickly to any complaint submitted about communal incitement, spreading of panic, etc. This does not need the passing of an order under any law, but requires good public relations skills and a desire not to treat internet services as enemies. The government could have encouraged regular users to flag false rumours and hate speech on these sites. On such occasions, social networking sites should step up and provide all lawful assistance that the government may require. They should also be more communicative in terms of the help they are providing to the government to curtail panic-inducing rumours and hate speech. (Such measures should largely be reactive, not proactive, to ensure legitimate speech doesn't get curtailed.)

The best antidote for the rumours that spread far and wide and caused a mass movement of people from Bangalore to the North-Eastern states would have been clear debunking of those rumours. Mass outreach to people in the North-East (very often the worried parents) and in Bangalore using SMSes and social media, debunking the very specific allegations and rumours that were floating around, would have been welcome. However, almost no government officials actually used social media platforms to reach out to people to debunk false information and reassure them. Even a Canadian interning in our organization got a reassuring SMS from the Canadian government.

It is indeed a pity that the government notified a social media engagement policy today, when the need for it was so very apparent all of the past week.

When it had taken so much time already, why not at least think through a proper, rational response? Why indeed did the government act -- and so hamhandedly -- now? Why did the knees jerk so late?  Only to be able to claim that "something is being done"?  And what has this something achieved really? In wanting to save face, it has only ended up getting more egg on it. Surely some one would have realised that all of this would only fuel interest in and result in more publicity for the sites/content it avowedly wanted blocked/banned?

Apart of course from the usual sarkari efficiency as enumerated by Pranesh Prakash, that make blocking pointless and ineffectual:

  1. Some of the items are not even web addresses (e.g., a few HTML img tags were included).
  2. Some of the items they have tried to block do not even exist (e.g., one of the Wikipedia URLs).
  3. An entire domain was blocked on Sunday, and a single post on that domain was blocked on Monday.
  4. For some Facebook pages, the secure version (https://facebook.com/...) is listed, for others the non-secure version (http://facebook.com/...) is listed.
  5. For some YouTube videos, the 'base' URL of YouTube videos is blocked, but for other the URL with various parameters (like the "&related=" parameter) is blocked. That means that even nominally 'blocked' videos will be freely accessible.

And we have not even started on the "egregious mistakes". Or the question of freespeech (as stated earlier, let's for the moment assume that the government had a case for banning all that it sought to ban in 'national interest', laughable though that claim seems at least for the two journalists above and many of the twitterati, even if one vehemently disagrees with many of them. They have an unambiguous right to be critical of the government which frankly should have other more pressing priorities than seeking to ban so recklessly). Or banning those who actually should have been paid attention to in the first place.

[And of course there are other tactical reasons too, some of which were enumerated by this writer way back in 2006, in the UPA I raj: What Remained Unsaid]

Clearly, UPA II has not learnt any of its lessons from its inept and atrocious handling of Anna/Ramdev protests when unknown faces were suddenly turned into martyrs/heroes only because of its smug arrogance in its petty dirty tricks department.

Really, is this the best this government can do? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

***

And in the end, a minor question, going back to the timeline at the beginning of this post: What were our famed intelligence agencies doing at least since July 19?

Indeed, even if they didn't wake up till Aug 10, what were they doing after that when reports started trickling in about sporadic attacks on Tibetans and Northeasterns?

Surely they are supposed to, among other things, also monitor "vernacular media" and state media?

Instead, what we had was baseless speculation about how Twitter and social media was exaggerating the attacks and fuelling an exodus.

And what action, indeed, has the government taken, or intends to take against such newspapers as the one Prof. C.M. Naim pointed to in his angry article of August 20: Will Justice Katju Please Take Note?

Why, may one ask, are pages such as the following linked in the above article not yet on any known list of sites sought to be banned?

And this surely is not the only newspaper that published those fake images and played at least some part in the incitement that we all seem to be so excited about?

***

Much more to say on all this, but for now, some of the tweets that may be of interest:

SHORT TAKES
26 Aug 2012, 01:42:25 AM | Buzz

Kanchan Gupta in the Mid Day: 'I was amazed by the stupidity of this decision':

I went to sleep more angry than upset. Anger turned into rage the next morning as I considered the enormity of the Government’s pernicious and vindictive decision. It was obvious that the move to block my handle was entirely motivated by political considerations. I have been a trenchant critic of this Government, its policies and its innumerable blunders. And, I have tried to use social media to air my views without mincing words...

.. I was appalled that the Government should suggest, even if ever so remotely, that I pose a security threat to my country. I was angry that something so patently illegal was being done so brazenly. It was convenient for the Government to use the troubles in Assam and elsewhere (most notably in Mumbai) as a cover to slyly muzzle my voice and take away from me my social media platform. It needed to be exposed...

...Whoever it is who thought of taming me by trying to block my Twitter handle, I would like to tell him (or her): Sorry, my credentials are many miles longer than yours. Your slur just won’t stick.

...I have an elephantine memory. Nor do I believe in niceties like forgiving and forgetting.

25 Aug 2012, 02:09:45 AM | Sundeep Dougal

MiD Day reports on Amit Paranape being included in DoT's block list: Pune Technologist stunned over inclusion in government's blocked list:

An avid cricket and Pune history lover, Paranjape's tweets are mostly about sports, the problems his city faces, and links to stories published in Pune newspapers. When MiD DAY spoke to Paranjape, he refused to elaborate much on the topic but said he plans to write to the ministry of telecommunications explaining his stand on the issue. "If needed, I can even speak to them," he said. "This is quite bizarre, and I want to set the record straight with the authorities." He refused to speak further, saying he wants to do this "the rigt way"

25 Aug 2012, 03:17:30 AM | Sundeep Dougal

@ShivAroor 's lovely take on #GoIBlocks:

And I think there's this rather klutzy elephant-in-high-heels sort of feel to the way the suits have gone about doing this. They've clearly lumbered through this without much real thought. We've all had a good laugh at how silly this whole ISP blocking profiles thing is, but then Twitter has been asked to pull the plug on us entirely, don't forget (nope, not worried). I had a brief bit of irritation when I realised that the internet provider I subscribe to at home, and who regularly over-bills me, had gone ahead and blocked my Twitter profile...

Then someone earnestly inquired, "Shiv, have you informed your parents?" Boom. Nope. My mom's the kind of person who worries when I say I'm going for a shower, so I'm thinking the e-mail I send to them on this blocking issue will have to be masterfully underplayed and made to look like it's some sort of achievement (will be enlisting the assistance of helpful souls who've tweeted me in the last 24 hours for this side task.)

When you've got the State on your back, especially for something that remains nebulous and tantalizingly unclear, it's a little unnerving. Then there was the suggestion from India's new Home Minister that Twitter handles of those who caused riots have been blocked -- hey, that's a real aspersion there. So they're saying I indulged in hate speech and goaded folks into sticking knives into each other? It probably doesn't occur to the government that I wouldn't have a job, never mind a Twitter account, if I even considered saying anything inflammatory. Or is this about interpretation? Or about rumour mongering? Or is it just monumental clumsiness?

24 Aug 2012, 10:10:04 PM | Buzz

Kanchan Gupta tells rediff that the government blocked his twitter handle because of a political vendetta:

At this age, to being told that I am being suspected of being a security threat to the country is either laughable or it is a slur on me. In our country you cannot prosecute the State, otherwise I would have prosecuted the State...

I have been consistent in my criticism of the Congress, the PM and this particular government. And I have a sizeable number of people who listen to what I have to say and that is what the government wanted to prevent. This is a political decision and that is why I call it a political vendetta.

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