India darkens Dawn

The giant nation's online censorship of a Pakistani newspaper highlights its disturbing hold on the Internet.

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The rest of the world hasn't been paying much attention, but there's a war going on in Kashmir, where Pakistani and Indian troops have been fighting, and dying, for the last two months. And now, as with so many of today's bloody little skirmishes, there's an Internet angle as well. It seems that India's largest Internet service provider, the state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (or VSNL), has been blocking Web access to Pakistan's most respected English-language newspaper, Dawn, for at least a week.

Net blockades are notoriously ineffective -- one Indian online service has already posted detailed instructions advising readers how to get around the restrictions. But this particular incident highlights some interesting points.

The first is that all publicly accessible international gateways to the Internet in India are controlled by one company, the state-owned telecom monopoly VSNL. India may be the second-largest (in terms of population) country in the world, and it may boast a thriving software industry, but its interconnectivity with the rest of the world is frighteningly restricted. Controlling these major chokepoints, VSNL could easily censor India's access to the rest of the Net, as it already has with Dawn.

The second point is more metaphysical. The roots of the current flare-up in Kashmir trace back to a Pakistani incursion across the so-called "Line of Control" -- the physical borderline that is supposed to demarcate Pakistani-controlled Kashmir from Indian-controlled Kashmir. Such borderlines are one of those messy old nationalistic things that the growth of borderless cyberspace is supposed to diminish in importance -- or at least that's long been a cherished hope of Net libertarians. But right now, the Internet's impact on the lives that are being lost in the harsh mountain terrain of Kashmir is at best minimal -- and at worst, comical. India looks stupid for trying to stop Indians from reading Pakistan's Dawn. But it's even more absurd, in this day and age, to believe that the Internet could do anything to resolve such a conflict.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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