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Govt blocks 245 web pages for provocative content, more could follow

In an attempt to curb the circulation of hate messages/inflammatory and harmful content that led to the exodus of North-Eastern people from some parts of the country, the Indian government has blocked 245 websites, adding that more could follow.

"Keeping in view the sensitivity and need for restoring peace, harmony and public order, the government, on recommendation of the Ministry of Home Affairs, issued orders under section 69A of the Information Technology Act 2000 directing intermediaries including international social networking sites to block 76 web pages on 18.08.2012, 80 web pages on 19.8.2012 and 89 web pages on 20.8.2012," stated an official release from the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology.

The government claims that a lot of inflammatory and harmful content/information has been appearing on social networking sites, mostly containing morphed images and videos of events unrelated to the Assam incident. Hosting such content has led to a lot of inciting comments from readers, as well as circulation of hate SMSes.

Consequently, the Department of Electronics & Information Technology had issued an advisory on August 17, 2012, to all intermediaries including national and international social networking sites, advising them to disable such content hosted on their sites, on a priority basis. However, such content continued to appear on those sites, leading to web page blocking.

Only recently, SP leader Ramgopal Yadav demanded (in the Rajya Sabha) a ban on social networking sites, claiming that the sites were being used as a medium for spreading rumours that led to the exodus of North-Eastern people from various Indian cities. In retaliation, hackers' group Anonymous took down the official website of the Samajwadi Party and then tweeted about the same (the site is up and running, as of now).

The government has also requested the intermediaries and international social networking sites to provide registration details and access logs of the people who uploaded such content. Initial response indicates that the content has been uploaded from outside the country, and to a large extent, from a neighbouring country.

While social networking sites are mostly seen as a medium to stay connected with friends and families, or to share/exchange information (remember the amount of Twitter and Facebook activities while the London Olympics was on), this is one case where social media has been used for all the wrong reasons.

Earlier, in a bid to quash rumours that created panic across the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs has also banned bulk SMSes and MMSes for 15 days (read here for more).

This also makes one realise that freedom of speech must be accompanied with responsible thinking and responsible action. Remember the Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou, who was not allowed to compete in the Olympics because of her racist Tweet? Closer home, there is the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan who got a lot of Twitter bashing when he absent-mindedly tweeted that Olympic medal-winner boxer Mary Kom was from Assam (she is actually from Manipur).

On the other hand, blocking sites and banning SMSes/MMSes may not be the right solution in this case. After all, there are other channels like instant messaging (IM) for doing the same (spreading rumours). Banning IM apps and similar technology tools across the country may very well cut off all vital communication links, doing more harm than good.

So what is your take on this? Do you feel that the government is justified in its action? What else can be done to retain peace and harmony without jeopardising technology and communication? Do share your comments below.

(Edited by Sanghamitra Mandal)

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