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Blocking Twitter: How Internet Service Providers & telcos were caught between tweets and tall egos

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 25, 2012 07:36 AM
Long derided as 'dumb pipes' to the Web, Internet service providers (ISPs) are discovering these days that insult is being increasingly followed up by injury.

Joji Thomas Philip and Harsimran Julka's article was published in the Times of India on August 25, 2012. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

In the fight between netizens who spare no effort at lampooning the powers that be and alarmingly frequent government flashes of rage at comments that can range from the mildly disrespectful to downright defamatory, telcos and ISPs find themselves much like the grass in the age-old Swahili saying "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers".

The latest reminder of the hard place they find themselves in came earlier this week when news first broke that the government had asked for some accounts on social media site Twitter to also be part of websites and Internet pages it wanted blocked by ISPs. The news triggered a wave of outrage across cyberspace, with many users venting their rage at the first entity they associate the web with - their ISP, which in many cases is also their telecom operator.

"We acted immediately to the government's orders, but ended up being targetted and criticised wrongly only because we acted first," explained one official, who sought anonymity for himself and the company to avoid offending bureaucrats.

It's a common feeling. Telcos and ISPs are increasingly finding themselves in a 'Damned if you do, Damned if you don't' predicament these days, having to walk a tightrope between government orders and a restive netizenry.

And government orders can range from the super-urgent to arbitrary to sometimes ill-conceived. Very often, its 'one ban fits all' makes little allowance for differences between social networking sites and regular websites.

Executives in telecom companies recounted the instance when the government on August 18 ordered a ban on bulk SMSes and restricted text messages to five per day as part of efforts to combat the large-scale migration of people of north-eastern origins from other states to their home provinces fearing reprisal attacks.

"Within an hour of the directive, we started getting calls seeking compliance," said a top executive with a leading telco. But as the Centre was demanding compliance reports, operators were busy trying to decipher its notification, which read: "(a) Block bulk SMS (more than 5) for the next 15 days in the entire country across all states/UTs (b) Block bulk MMS (more than 5) and all MMS with attachment more than 25 KB for the next 15 days in the entire country across all states/UTs."

Shoot first, talk later

Telecom operators were nonplussed by the notification. Did it apply only to senders of bulk text messages who use this facility for commercial purposes? Or, did it mean customers could not send SMSes to more than five people simultaneously?

"When we sought clarification, the explanation was completely different and took a new dimension. It was five text messages per day per customer," said the regulatory head of a GSM operator, requesting anonymity as he did not want to offend the government.

Mobile phone companies then approached the department of telecom explaining that they did not have any technology with which they could impose a five SMSes a day limit for postpaid users. "The home and telecom ministries had not even realised that a facility did not exist before issuing the directive," said the marketing head of a leading telco.

In this case, the government accepted the operator's arguments and relented, but still told the companies not to highlight the limitation. "This time around, our arguments were accepted. Going by past instances, some operators had feared that the government would slap a hefty penalty for non-compliance without considering what we had to say," the marketing head said.

Industry officials say the tendency of 'shoot first, talk later' among bureaucrats and ministers long used to having their orders followed, especially when it came to the world of social networking which very few of them had any idea about, meant that it was safer to obey first and correct later.

"We don't even do any application of mind to the government's notices on requests. We wholesale block them. We can't even question the government's requests. A notice is a law in effect. Violation means a potential penalty which can go up to the cancellation of my licence and thus end to my business," said the head of a Delhi-based ISP that serves business users.

Executives with several ISPs and telcos say most often, court orders, government notifications and directives are not in public domain, and these result in angry consumers assuming that their service provider is up to some mischief.

ISPs say public clarifications by the government would go a long way in addressing the issue. "There has to be transparency. The government should have proactively disclosed the names of the websites it wanted blocked. The persons and intermediaries hosting the content should have been notified and provided with 48 hours to respond as required by the IT Act," said Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society, a research organisation.

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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