Sept. 29, 2003 | BANGOLORE, India (AP) --
A government ban on an Internet discussion group run by an obscure separatist movement has ended up blocking access to popular, unrelated Yahoo forums in nearly all of India.
Over the past two weeks, India's dozens of Internet service providers have been told by the government to block access to a Yahoo! Inc. discussion group called "Kynhun - Bri U Hynniewtrep."
The forum, which has about two dozen members, is run by a separatist group called Hynniewtrep International Liberation Council. The little-known organization says it represents the ethnic Khasi people and wants their home region, a small slice of the country's northeast, to secede from India.
India's Computer Emergency Response Team, a section of the Information Ministry that normally deals with hackers and virus attacks, ordered the discussion group blocked in mid-September for "promoting anti-national news and containing material against the government."
But for technical reasons, Indian Internet service providers were unable to block just the Kynhun site -- and had to shut down every Yahoo discussion group. Other sections of the Yahoo Web site, such as its Internet portal and news areas, were unaffected.
"This is more like a dictatorship and goes against the concept of freedom of speech," said Sushil Devaraj, a businessman who regularly uses Yahoo discussion groups to discuss programming issues for a low-cost computer called the Simputer.
Efforts to contact the separatist group were unsuccessful. However, Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for press freedom, criticized the ban and called for it to be rescinded.
"Blocking a few Web pages can result in the blocking of hundreds of other Web pages that have nothing to do with the banned content," said Robert Menard, the group's secretary general.
Web sites like Yahoo let users create and subscribe to electronic discussion forums where members can exchange views. The groups are used for everything from keeping in touch with friends to discussing politics and home repair.
The Indian government occasionally blocks Web sites it finds objectionable, including one for a Pakistani newspaper during India-Pakistan fighting in 1999.
The newest ban has annoyed Indian users, who have found their favorite groups suddenly inaccessible.
"My students have a problem. I discuss my subject with them on Yahoo groups. We have not been able to do it," said Rajeev Gowda, an economics professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. "This heavy-handed action has affected a variety of users who have nothing to do with that group."
The latest issue hinges on where Hynniewtrep International Liberation Council's postings live in cyberspace.
The group's discussion forum does not appear on the Web site of Bombay-based Yahoo India, http://in.groups.yahoo.com.
Instead, the forum resides on U.S. servers maintained by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo -- at http://groups.yahoo.com
-- which can be visited by anyone with Internet access in India.
The distinction is legally significant, said Mary Catherine Wirth, Yahoo's senior corporate counsel for international issues. The content may violate Indian laws if it were posted in an Indian Web site, but the group's discussion forum is published on an American site and does not violate American laws, she said.
"If the block were directed at Yahoo India, we would certainly remove it," Wirth said Monday. "But they're not complaining about a local site violating a local law. They're complaining about a U.S. site violating India's law."
Wirth noted that Indian officials have not asked Yahoo executives in the United States to restrict access to the U.S. Web site.
Yahoo's U.S.-based lawyers have asked India's Department of Telecommunications to direct its Internet service providers to narrow the scope of their blocks to Hynniewtrep International Liberation Council's site only.
Internet service providers in India said they were indeed trying to fine-tune their blocking mechanisms to allow access to other Yahoo discussion groups, though none appeared to be successful late Monday.
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