April 07, 2020
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Blockers Anonymous

DoT's leaked blocking orders raise unanswered questions about clandestine censorship

Blockers Anonymous

It was Friday evening, after the edit meeting, when the print editors go out to party and the web editor stoically goes back to work, when the phone rang.

“Dude, watch out, your URLs are on the list.”

Our business editor, calling from his sickbed, could barely suppress his glee. His was the first of the many calls that followed that evening about the now infamous ‘78 URLs’—73 of them about IIPM—that the DoT wanted Internet Service Licensees to block. Three of these 73 happened to be of blogs.outlookindia.com, the blogs section of Outlook website. One of these three was repeated and so, in effect, there were two of our URLs on this list.

It seemed they had already been blocked—we could not access them. Some of my colleagues mentioned that they had not been able to file new stories since 4 pm that day. The tech team that has run the website for over 13 years said they had never encountered something like this before. Then someone said that the entire blogs area was down too. Suddenly the penny dropped. We realised that some geniuses had blocked the entire blogs sub-domain and not just the specific URLs. Which is why when we tried changing its DNS to another IP address, it resulted in fresh blocks.

DoT seems to be merrily going about secretly blocking many URLs without anyone knowing it.

If one were not at the receiving end, I am told, this would be the perfect cue for invoking Kafka and Orwell, but I can assure you solemnly that the only thoughts we articulated were rather graphic Punjabi imprecations—not just muttered but uttered rather emphatically. Intermittent calls to our lawyer followed to ask whether the Supreme Court could be petitioned at that late hour. Who could we sue? The irony was complete. The DoT, with the foresight worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby, had inserted a CYA clause in its order: “You are accordingly directed to immediately block the access to above URLs only and not the main websites.”

It seemed that we were the only ones singled out for this honour, for only the relevant URLs had been blocked for others. By then there was news that “the directive was issued on the basis of an order from a court in Gwalior”. It remained unclear which court in Gwalior had ordered what exactly, and of course why indeed our entire blogs were being blocked without any information to us. Then, suddenly, soon after 12:50 am on Saturday, equally inexplicably, everything was restored. The entire blogs area, including the two listed URLs. So, from being singled out as having our entire blog blocked, even the URLs sought to be blocked were now available.

It has been almost a week; the same questions remain. Had Medianama not leaked the list, and had the blocks been competently executed to the last URL, none of us would have come to know of any of this. As the accompanying story shows, DoT seems to be merrily going about clandestinely blocking many URLs without anybody being any the wiser, unless an order gets leaked. Wait, maybe I should go check that cover story we did on....

Sundeep Dougal is Editor, Outlook Websites; E-mail your columnist: sundeep AT outlookindia.com

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