By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi
India's burgeoning blogging community is up in arms against a government directive that they say has led to the blocking of their web logs.
There are 50 million Internet users in India
The country's 153 internet service providers (ISP) have blocked 17 websites since last week on federal government orders.
Some of these sites belong to Google's Blogspot, a leading international web log hosting service.
Indian bloggers say that the decision is an attack on freedom of speech.
A number of them have started filing petitions under the country's new landmark freedom of information law which gives citizens the right to access information held by the government.
Bloggers say the ban has meant that people do not even have access to blogs like the one set up to help the relatives of the victims of the recent train bombings in Mumbai (Bombay), www.mumbaihelp.blogspot.com.
The government is not saying why it has banned each of the sites in its latest notification.
SOME BANNED SITES
This has incensed bloggers in India, which has about 40,000 blog sites, even more.
"We want answers. Has the government goofed? Or is really talking censorship? With all our problems in India I was naive enough to feel that I was always free to express myself," writes blogger Dina Mehta.
Writer Dilip D'Souza, who authors a blog, says there is a "groundswell" of anger over the government decision.
"The government of my country does what governments find so easy: ban, block, censor," he writes.
Blogger Amit Agarwal bemoans on his site that India has "joined the Internet Filtering Club of China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Ethiopia".
"If the access to restricted websites is not restored in a day or two, this issue is sure to gather active momentum in the Western blogosphere."
Technology consultant Abhishek Baxi, who authors a blog, has filed two petitions under the freedom of information laws demanding answers from the government on the reasons behind the move.
"Is there a directive to block entire blog hosting services? Isn't this is a violation of our freedom of speech," he wonders.
But a spokesman for India's Internet Service Providers Association says that not all the ISPs have blocked blog sites.
"I have personally checked through different ISPs and logged on to many blogging sites, apart from the ones which have been specifically banned by the government," says Deepak Maheshwari, secretary of the association.
A government official has also said there has been no blanket ban on blogging hosts like Blogspot.
"The government order has four blogs under blogspot.com. The order didn't ask the whole site to be banned," Gulshan Rai of India's state-run Computer Emergency Response Team told reporters.
This does not placate bloggers like Sailesh Bharatwasi, 23, who says he has not been able to blog due to the ban.
"I am very tense and angry. We write so that people can read us. The ban is cutting us off from the people," he says.
A federal government notification of July 2003 says it can ban websites in the interest of:
- sovereignty or integrity of India
- security of the state
- friendly relations with foreign states and public order
- preventing incitement to commissioning of any cognisable offences.
The sites that have been banned include ones with right-wing Hindu links and an anti-Communist one. At least four of them are on the Blogspot hosting service.
This is not the first time that the government has ordered the blocking of websites since its notification three years ago.
Two years ago, the government blocked a site under a popular message group saying it was indulging in "anti-national activity".
There is a thriving blogging community in India
"It has happened a few times in the past, particularly blocking of pornographic sites. But this is the single largest lot of sites to be blocked," says Puneet Tiwari, deputy director of the Internet Service Providers Association of India.
Internet professionals and lawyers believe that blocking sites really serves no purpose in a large country like India with an increasingly thriving blogging community.
"The ISPs can block a specific site, but the person who runs it can easily tweak its name a bit and return," says Mr Tiwari.
There are an estimated 50 million internet users in India, according to ISP industry estimates.
Only seven million people subscribe to the internet, of whom 1.5 million receive broadband services.