The world's largest democracy is seriously mishandling the most freedom-enabling part of the Internet. We're talking about India's ill-advised clampdown on Internet blogging in the wake of last week's train bombings in Bombay that killed 182 and wounded more than 700. This is neither fitting of a free society nor, as it happens, a particularly useful tool against terrorism. The opposite is probably true.
For the last several days, the Indian government has blocked access to blogspot.com, typepad.com and other popular sites in what is reportedly either a clampdown on Web-savvy terrorists or a muzzling of inflammatory anti-Islam sentiment from Indian bloggers. Whichever it is, it's the wrong policy. Not only does this strip Indians of their democratic rights, but it also has robbed the city of Bombay of arguably its most useful emergency information system. Mumbaihelp.blogspot.com began tracking the bombings moments after they occurred; the near-constant updates on blocked rail lines, traffic and hospital information and, in time, a list of the dead were a lifeline to a frightened and confused public. Web sites like Mumbaihelp are now blocked.
If the worry is anti-Islam sentiment, the government should admit that it has little recourse. A democracy cannot presume to censor its people and much less should it burden itself with trying in the chaotic aftermath of terrorism. It has better things to do.
If the concern is blocking terrorist communication, the move would be self-defeating here, too. As anarchic as the Internet may seem, in reality it is becoming home turf for government intelligence agents and for law enforcement. In last month's foiling of a major terrorist plot in Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's Internet surveillance of the 17 alleged terrorists reportedly headed off a plan to detonate truck bombs, storm parliament and behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper, among other top officials. In Canada, Internet chatter was a gold mine of useful information. India's best option is to act like Canada. Of course, if it turns out that India shut the blogs in a panic, this only proves that it lacks the capability.
Speculation that the government would reverse itself began late yesterday as criticism within the country and without began to mount. If India unblocks the blogs, we at least hope government leaders would have learned something from the experience. When a democracy approaches the Internet as China and Iran do, the result is neither justifiable nor useful.
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