Many of us know about it by now. On Friday, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) ordered all Internet Service Providers (ISP) in the country to block more than 70 URLs of content supposedly critical of business school Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) and its dean Arindam Chaudhuri. DoT was obeying a Gwalior court order. The blocked URLs included links to blog posts, articles carried on websites of publications like The Indian Express, The Economic Times and Outlook, and even a notice issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC).
Obviously, there has been a furore in cyberspace. Battalions of Twitterati have attacked IIPM and Chaudhuri, who are hardly strangers to controversy. According to some media reports, hackers even took down the IIPM website on Saturday night. Chaudhuri has issued angry press statements against his detractors while welcoming the court order. Enraged exchanges continue on the net.
Most of what people have been posting on blogs and social media is about IIPM: allegations that it misrepresents facts, and so on. But that is missing the woods for the trees. IIPM is hardly the big issue here. The issue here is that a court issued such an order.
The fact that the court ordered the blocking of a notice issued by the UGC, the government authority which is supposed to monitor the quality of our higher education systems, is actually more serious than the obvious freedom of expression issue. If this wasn’t frightening, it would have been actually funny. The current government’s zeal to curb freedom on the Internet turns and bites it right back.
Some of the links blocked are simply news reports that make no comment—libelous or otherwise—on IIPM. Some other links, of course, express very strong opinions about the business school; a few of them appear to be dedicated purely to attacking it. But the order doesn’t seem to have taken the content of the links into account and applies a broad brushstroke that indicates a casual attitude towards something at the very core of a democratic system.
And of course, the order is the latest in a series of decisions by various institutions in India to pander to any random hurt sentiment.
Naturally, the blocking of the links has not been able to curb access to the content at all. First of all, Google caches every page, so you can just click on “cache” and read the stuff. Besides, even a fairly cyber-illiterate person like me knows of anonymizer services available for a small fee that allow people to access anything on the net, even if the links are blocked by Indian ISPs. Anyway, the moment news about the order hit the web, the blocked content was made available by enterprising people on blogs, personal websites and social media. So the whole affair just proves both general and specific ignorance about the nature of the Internet. on the part of the court and the DoT. And also IIPM’s lawyers and advisors.
Besides, shouldn’t DoT have informed the websites before blocking the links? Didn’t someone at the DoT notice that it was asking ISPs to shut access to a UGC notice? Clearly, people manning our telecom ministry are careless or clueless.
The Gwalior court went by Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which has been repeatedly misused in recent months to harass innocent people for posting their opinions on the net. In fact, a couple of months ago, based on a public interest litigation, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Union government and five states, questioning the legal soundness of the section. The government has been making feeble noises about educating law enforcers about judicious application of the section. But nothing much seems to have changed.
So, this whole thing is not really about one business school and its high-profile dean. It is indicative of something very rotten at the heart of our system. We should be scared.