A site called Orkut is at the centre of a billowing controversy. The Shiv Sena’s student wing, the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, is protesting against ‘defamatory matter’ on Chatrapati Shivaji and Bal Thackeray on the website. What is Orkut? Can the internet really be censored? Mahima Kaul takes on the questions
What is Orkut?
Orkut is Google’s social networking website. It was launched on January 22, 2004. Members create profiles, upload pictures and personal information, leave ‘scraps’ (messages) and join communities. Orkut has become especially popular with the Indian youth who are often not allowed to mix as freely in real life as they can on the internet.
However, its virtual communities have been getting the site into trouble. In 2006, the US was concerned that terrorists may be using the site after groups supporting Osama bin Laden began mushrooming on it. But the majority of Orkut communities are non controversial.
What is the current controversy about?
While the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena initially demanded that internet cafés be closed down and that internet service providers (ISPs) ban Orkut, they have now registered a complaint with the Mumbai police. Sify, Mumbai’s biggest ISP, refused to ban the site. Sify says that unless there is an official directive, Orkut can sue them for blocking its site. Also, it is one of the main reasons young people visit cyber cafes.
The Controller of Certifying Authority (under the IT ministry) is reviewing the complaint. It is authorised to monitor online content and block offensive sites.
Have websites been banned before in India?
In India, the first such incident took place in September 2003, when government wanted to ban Yahoo Groups because one of their groups was allegedly linked to Kynhun, a separatist group from Meghalaya. However, because the ISPs did not know how to ban a single group, all groups on Yahoo ended up being banned for two weeks. In July 2006, government ordered a ban on 17 websites, but again due to the ISPs’ inability to ban specific sites, whole websites ended up being banned. There was a major uproar in the media, the ban was lifted.
What kind of things are censored the world over?
Certain countries restrict the internet more than others. According to the OpenNet initiative, China, Vietnam and Iran are the worst offenders.
The two biggest reasons officially cited for restricting the internet are child pornography and support for terrorism. In the US, the Common Decency Act (1996) restricts online speech that could be seen by minors. In the UK, schools, public libraries etc are encouraged to install software called Cleanfeed, which is a content filter. In the past, the Home Office had asked ISPs to block access to articles that glorified terrorism. This is within the purview of their Terrorism Act, 2006.
Countries, like Pakistan, Egypt, Iran are critical of sites that criticise the government. Recently, an Egyptian blogger was sent to jail on that count. China’s strict control of the internet is well-known, and in North Korea it is available to only a few people.
Why is the internet difficult to control?
Accessing blocked sites is made easy by proxy servers. Proxy servers are un-banned websites that can display banned content. All one needs to do is put in the address of the banned site on the proxy server website and the page will be opened. Similarly, programmes such as Psiphon (popular in China) and JAP allow users to browse the web anonymously.