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Internet expert Pranesh Prakash criticizes Indian cyber blockades

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 24, 2012 12:58 PM
The government's attempts to block social media accounts and websites that it blames for spreading panic have been inept and possibly illegal, a top internet expert said on Friday.

Published in the Economic Times on August 24, 2012.

Earlier this month, thousands of people from the country's remote northeast began fleeing cities in southern and western India, as rumors swirled that they would be attacked in retaliation for ethnic violence against Muslims in their home state.

Last weekend, the government said the rumors were fed by gory images - said to be of murdered Muslims - that were actually manipulated photos of people killed in cyclones and earthquakes. Officials said the images were spread to sow fear of revenge attacks.

After that, the government began interfering with hundreds of websites, including some Twitter accounts, blogs and links to certain news stories. The government also ordered telephone companies to sharply restrict mass text messages.

It is unclear who has been spreading the inflammatory material. Experts say that despite the government's electronic interference, there are many ways to access the blocked sites.

"The government has gone overboard and many of its efforts are legally questionable,'' said Pranesh Prakash, who studies internet governance and freedom of speech at The Center for Internet and Society, a research organization in the southern city of Bangalore.

The center has published a list of over 300 internet links blocked in the last two weeks. These include some pages on Facebook, YouTube and news items on the sites of Al Jazeera, Australia's ABC, and a handful of Indian and Pakistani news sites.

The exodus of people from the northeast followed clashes in Assam state over the last several weeks between ethnic Bodos and Muslims settlers. At least 80 people were killed in that violence and 400,000 were displaced. Most of those who fled were living in Bangalore, where text messages spread quickly threatening retaliatory attacks by Muslims.

The Bodos and the Muslim settlers - most of whom arrived years ago from what was then East Pakistan, and which is now Bangladesh_have clashed repeatedly over the decades. But the recent violence was the worst since the mid-1990s.

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