Thursday, May 9, 2013

How to Use Technology for Censorship

Censorship is an onerous responsibility and should not sit lightly on the shoulders of the honourable gentlemen and gentle ladies tasked with this duty. Fortunately in Independent India we have had a rich, varied, and long tradition of exercising this civil right with gay abandon mixed with sombre pronouncements of having averted bloody internecine conflict within the state in the nick of time. The discharge of aforementioned duties started in earnest with our first prime minister of independent India, Panditji Jawaharlal Nehru, who responded with imperial disdain and a shake of a furious fist to the mortal confines of the Indian Constitution by introducing its first amendment - the honour of moving the first amendment to the Constitution had to go to the first prime minister, but only naturally.

His Master's Voice
Skipping ahead to more modern times, the advent of technology has made the already arduous job of the censor-babu in our country that much more difficult. He has to not only keep track of which books to ban, but now within his gambit falls newer and newer items and objects - web sites, Twitter handles, blogs, URLs, domains, pages, search queries, and what have you - to figure out how to ban. Not just regular web traffic, but also voice and video traffic that flows through insurrectionist services like Skype, Viber, and more. It is not enough that one studies to gain admission into the hallowed halls of the Indian Administrative Service, the grant of which not only confers the very distinct eventuality of a million dollar dowry to the admittee, but also a certified freedom from having to worry about any further acquisition of knowledge. Common sense is expected to wither away with the passage of time, to hollow out in the hallowed halls of North Block and South Block and every other cinder block and blockhead that will render itself to the bureaucrat. The sense of loss at this withering away is however ameliorated by the much faster accumulation of under-the-table wealth (the latest case involving the Indian Railways and its honest minister).
Technology however has thrown a spanner in the works. In conjunction with the sharp tongue of their political masters, the equally sharp censorial dictacts too have to be obeyed (see this, this, this, and this for instance). Political masters have to be obeyed, else the prospect of banishment to a "dry" ministry looms like a dark cloud on a moonless night.

Honour Among...
The value of censorship becomes, err, invaluable, when one needs to fight the absolutely wrong and libelous canards floated against the ruling party by vested interests. Interests are always vested, never vesting, for some reason never quite clarified. The treachery of the Indian middle-class - that is mosgynist, hates street fighters, is rabidly communal, is responsible for manual scavenging, and every other ill the nation has seen and yet to see - needs to be put down with the iron hand of the, err, hand, without quite revealing the hand to all, the fingers of which should remain diligently busy in the till. However, in this day and age of alleged openness, it is not as easy a task as used to be in the golden days or yore when one could simply set half a dozen of one's well-muscled mards to pummel a few such middle-class citizens who had the temerity to rise up against the party. While the value of a few broken bones will not be denied by the doctors collecting their fees for the mending of such broken bones, the true value of inflicting much-needed and equally deserved peaceful violence on the citizenry lay in its ability to break the spirit of the spirited, leaving behind an unwilling flesh and a weakened spirit. The salubrious effects of a crushed spirit are too many to be enumerated without resort to gin or Old Monk.

The honourable politician and the equally honourable bureaucrat also misses the good, golden, olden, halcyonic days of yore when a newspaper that spread false canards - it is vital to stress that canards can be false, especially when spread by traitors and capitalists, as opposed to truthful canards, that almost always originate from nationalist journalists and patriotic politicians - could be made to see the light of reason through the gentle persuasion that three hundred cases in courts can bring, or via the melodious orchestra that can only be played by well-muscled mards from a rival newspaper accompanying their riotous orchestration of breaking bones with the sighting of stars and nebulous galaxies in broad daylight.

Technology, however, can complicate matters. Breaking a computer won't help beyond pacifying, momentarily, the righteous rage of the rightful. Untruthful tweeters can be a tad difficult to chase down over the interwebbs. So, alas, aleck, what is one to do in this age of technology, of pipes, and nets and tubeful internets? The possibilities are surprisingly, and deliciously, infinite, and I will enumerate a few of those. Only a teensy, weensy few of those.

Galahad, Lancelot, and Lord Censor to the Rescue
  • Bludgen through total censorship. Ban YouTube, Facebook, Blogger, Wordpress, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, en-masse. That shall solve the problem. But it is also a very crude solution. One could even be accused of being a digital maut ka saudagar, or better still, mute ka saudagar. It is also a very visible measure of the assertion of control, and some may misconstrue it as desperation. What muddies the waters is the presence of the honourable government on some of these sites. Citing the anarchist nature of these sites would also cast an asperic finger at the government too. And let's not forget the diversionary entertainment value that these sites provide to the masses, opiating them into a dull apathy that should be the defining mark of every great nation's great citizenry.

  • Selecting blocking. Astute application of a rusty mind can clear the cobwebs somewhat, and one looks at the question of censoring the webs afresh. Selective blocking means that one blocks selectively. Judicial cover is useful in the event of hostile fire, but courts and inconvenient judges asking inconvenient questions can only inconvenience the delivery of justice. Even interweb fans should not really have any objection of the speeding up of justice. So selective blocking via government orders, issued by jovial joint secretaries, compiled by stern stenographers (bureaucrats cannot be expected to type), and dictated by honest internet experts (there's really no qualification to being designated an expert, or honest - self-attestation and the correct political affiliation generally suffice). So, purely for the sake of illustration, without prejudice, the Department of Telecommunications (a DOT that acts as a blot, eh?) could issue a firman to telecom providers to block twitter handles like or
    The display of expertise however cannot stop here. Search phrases also can be blocked.
    There is more to commend this option than almost any other alternative, but this too has its limitations. First, it has to be established who to block. It does not prevent someone from opening a new user id and carrying on their uncouth utterings from there. Thirdly, the message has to go out to all telecom companies, and all have to be willing to obey the dictats of dictatorial demands, post-haste. Fourth, sympathetic media houses and friends of friend journalists have to be bought on board to ensure that the honest viewpoint of the government gets across.
    You must also have journalists willing to roll up their sleeves and go to bat for the honest government, but in some cases where you encounter sleeveless journalists or naked ones in Turkish baths, you should consider your job half done. But after all that's been unsaid and undone, selective blocking is a practice that deserves praise in its effectiveness. Blocked people do not twit no tweets or blurt no blogs.

  • Suit Yourself. This is generally the resort of the rich and powerful whose greater need is to send a public message via a very public and hopefully humiliating submission of the vile critic. Let us not call them psychopaths, because psychopaths derive pleasure from the public and very hopefully humiliating submission of their perceived enemies. The target of such rightful wrath should be a person without the means or the time to properly defend himself. That ensures several endearingly enduring dividends. One establishes one's reputation for tough uprightness that will brook no besmirching of one's carefully crafted reputation. The public pronouncement of faith in the judiciary of the country establishes one's patriotic credentials even more, unless it is the judiciary itself that hauls one over the coals, for instance castigating the media's "reckless coverage of the terrorist attack" (of 26/11 2008), in which case a studied silence is the most dignified response to this wanton and uncalled assault on the freedom of the media - one cannot after all sue the honorable Supreme Court justices. Et tu Brutus? The private but positively libertine pleasure of having shown the other person his place is worth several satieted nights. But it is time consuming, and public, and while it has its value in establishing the (mis)rule of law, it cannot be relied upon to deliver judgment when time is of the essence.

  • Micro-muting. No, this is not a simile for control exercised over our esteemed prime minister. This is positively diabolical, if only I may say dare say so. When practiced by the government, it is only positive. This however requires that all telecom operators in India route traffic through a centrally managed router, a firewall, and subject every tweet to an agni-pareeksha (the word "firewall" literally, figuratively speaking wrote the words "agni-pareeksha"). Filters based on keywords, expressions, and even sentiment analysis can be used to create these filters. So, for example, if a tweet went thus - "XYZ is corrupt and he will lose his seat", or "LLR speaks once in five years, when he has to take oath" - one could tag this tweet because it contained the words "LLR" and "speak", and therefore as a candidate for blocking. A weight can then be attached based on who is sending the tweet - patriotic tweeters could be allowed to send such tweets while unpatriotic traitors disallowed. The brilliance of such an approach lies in its ability to confuse and obfuscate, for long the role of media anchors and arm-chair experts. But, and yes, one has to butt in with a "but" - this is expensive, requires technological know-how, algorithmic awareness, cooperation, even if coerced, from the telecom providers, and decryption keys from the service in question - Twitter for instance. Perhaps root certificates could be used to launch man-in-the-middle attacks, but to expect such expertise from a democratic government is perhaps too ambitious. For our northerly neighbours it would be a walk in the park, not mission impossible. Not at all. To perform deep packet inspection requires the installation of serious hardware - capable of handling hundreds of megabits per second of traffic at an aggregate level so that interception happens in real-time. Then you need monitoring and filtering software that can inspect, parse, and apply post-detection actions. In the absence of any concerted efforts, it is likely that micro-muting will be displayed only by the top echelons of the political leadership of this country for some time to come.
    But over the long term, this is perhaps the most elegant, sophisticated option, and clearly the need of the hour, every hour.

  • Geo-targeting. Physical intimidation is, by its very definition, geographical in nature. It is a travesty that technophiles see geo-tagging as something innovative and emerging only from the world of technology. Geo-tagging has existed since time immemorial. Here, however, geo-targeting means something different, and subtly so. This is a fascinating topic that deserves its own post, perhaps at a later point.

  • Counter-offensive. We are already starting to see some sophisticated and lots of not so sophisticated counter-offensives being launched by noblemen who threaten to perform all manners of vividly described and arguably illegal acts upon their opponents, even as officious mandarins who may have served in the hallowed halls of international organizations smile benevolently on the indulgences of their aww-so-cute brats. An appropriate level of funding, paid for by the (dishonest, of course) middle-class taxpayer, can incentivize an honest level of participation from the honest but so far silent majority. If Twitter, for instance, is one such medium, a counter-offensive can drown out any and all noise from the self-styled nationalists. The signal becomes clear. For every irresponsible tweet by the traditionally effete middle-class, there should be the unmistakable signal sent out by a hundred tweets that promise the assured and decidedly deserved deliverance of kamasutric and tantric acts upon the tweeter, his family, and friends - a promise of the deliverance of a truly social circle of hell upon the already damned.
This short working paper is only meant to encourage discussion among those right-minded people who find themselves appalled by this wanton abuse by the unwashed masses of their ill-deserved digital freedoms granted by a benevolent family and its equally munificent but silent furniture, even as the self-proclaimed, self-styled intellectuals, who crawled when asked to bend, have stood by silently. Not any more. 

© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.