After an evening at the theatre in Delhi on Thursday, Vikram Phukan attempted to log on to blog-hosting website Typepad.com in order to post his review of the play "Red Sparrow" on his own website Stageimpressions.com. To his shock, the screen flashed the terse message: "This site has been blocked as per request from Department of Telecom."
"There's nothing incendiary on my website at all, so I couldn't imagine why the government would want to block it," he told The Hindu.
A little detective work found that he was not alone. Others had been complaining for days, with the first Tweet on the issue on February 27. Screenshots seemed to show that while a number of internet service providers were blocking the Typepad site – along with mobile applications site Mobango.com and bulk SMS site ClickATell.com – the message mentioning the Telecom department was only posted by Airtel, Reliance Netconnect and Fivenet Broadband. The message had disappeared by Friday evening, with the sites becoming accessible again.
The buzz on the blogosphere is resurrecting the ghost of 2006, when the Indian government ordered a block of certain websites hosted by Google's Blogger service, resulting in internet service providers blocking the host Blogger.comitself. Thousands of blogs were inaccessible in India for almost a week before the issue was sorted out.
"All our hard work in writing a review that night was wasted," says Mr. Phukan. "If there's a problem with one website on terrorism or whatever, they should find a way to block that alone."
It is not yet clear whether the recent case was similar to the 2006 incident. Queries with the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) – the responsible agency under the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications – yielded little light, and director general Gulshan Rai was unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts.
An Airtel spokesperson insisted that there was "no directive from the government" and that the issue was "just a temporary network problem", but was unable to explain why the message regarding a request from the Department of Telecom was posted.
So far as most veteran bloggers are concerned, the message is actually good news. "Usually, when the government wants to block a site, the user just sees an error message, so you don't even know if it's just a problem with your connection," says Shivam Vij, blogger and journalist who has written on the issue for kafila.org. "At least now, the ISP has put out a message so we know where we stand. This culture of secrecy must end."
"I am personally against blocking anything at all, but at least if a film or book is banned, there is a reason given and a notification put out," says Nikhil Pahwa, editor of the digital news site Medianama.com. "But when you block an internet site, there is no information." Even RTI requests have failed to elicit reasons for the blocking of individual sites, he says. He wants the government to release updated details on all blocked sites. "This is regulation of content, a form of censorship. At least it should be open for public debate."