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India Bans Bulk Text Messages in Vain Attempt to Quell Rumors of Internecine Conflict

BY Lisa Goldman | Monday, August 20 2012

In an attempt to halt a mass migration fueled by panic over possible internecine conflict, the Indian government has banned bulk text messages for 15 days. A communal dispute over land rights between Muslims and the indigenous northeastern Bodo tribe led to rumors, spread via social media and text messages, that migrants from the northeast were in danger of attack all over the country. Thousands of fearful migrants from the northeast jammed train stations all over the country, fleeing to their home states.

Indian officials have also reportedly ordered 80 or more web or social networking pages blocked. Some student groups and ethnic northeast Indians also started online social media campaigns against what they saw as Muslim threats. India says the messages come from Pakistan.

Indian Twitter users are jeering at the government's attempt to curb freedom of expression, reports the Times of India. Muslims were upset at being prevented from sending traditional greetings for Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan. A separate Times of India article reports that Internet-savvy phone users are using apps like Nimbuzz, which allows unlimited calls, texts and file sharing on any mobile device — not just smart phones. Nimbuzz told the Times that the number of registered users had increased 20 percent in one day after the 5SMS cap was announced.

Many of the sardonic comments directed at the government's attempts at censorship are posted on Twitter with the hashtag #5SMS.

An Indian tech site called Media4Nama published a post called Why India’s Current Ban On SMS Is Poorly Thought Out with a nicely reasoned, pragmatic summary that illustrates the heavy handed and tech-ignorant nature of the government's cap on text messages. Excerpt:

There is no justification for the spread of false information which endangers the lives of those belonging to a particular ethnic community and tries to create a situation of panic. However, even in these situations, a blanket ban in unjustifiable. The deaf community, for example, relies extensively on P2P messaging for communication. I know, because someone in my family does. Instead, why doesn’t the government use the same medium – text messaging – to ask for people to be calm (DON’T PANIC) and ask them to stop spreading false information. Set up a helpline and ask people to report instances of spreading of false rumors.

From what we’ve heard (and this is unconfirmed), the government does monitor messaging for specific keywords; can’t they put their snooping to good use and block specific keywords for a particular timeframe?

The post was later updated with a smart and timely statement from the Internet And Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The first point is perhaps the most salutary:

Blanket ban is not in the public interest. Banning communication systems in such a critical time can worsen the law-and-order situation rather than improving it. The lack of truthful news messages creates an information vacuum which increases anxiety and drives people even more toward unreliable rumors.

The government of the world's largest democracy has not yet learned that attempts to throttle open communication simply do not work.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.