NEW DELHI // Hundreds of people are expected to turn out tomorrow in 19 Indian cities to protest against internet censorship.
The protests have been called by an Indian spin-off of the international hackers' collective Anonymous, which is also pursuing a campaign against Indian internet Service Providers (ISPs), claiming that it is censoring the internet by blocking access to file-sharing websites.
Anonymous India fired its first salvo against ISPs on Wednesday when it brought down the website of the state-owned Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) by a Distributed Denial of Service attack.
On a Twitter feed set up for its India campaign, with the handle opindia_revenge, Anonymous India tweeted: "MTNL, your web site's been down for too long. Sad news for an ISP."
There has been no official reaction by the government to these attacks, But cert-in, a national agency that responds to computer security incidents, acknowledged that the attacks took place.
"It is observed that some hacker groups are launching distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on websites of government and private organisations in India. The attacks may be targeted to different websites of reputed organisations," cert-in said in an advisory on its website.
One MTNL manager, MK Purohit, told the Associated Press that the corporate website was, in any case, defunct, and that MTNL instead ran two separate websites for its Delhi and Mumbai markets.
During the attack, the hacked MTNL website sported the Anonymous logo - a mask of the 17th-century English revolutionary Guy Fawkes, as seen in the movie V for Vendetta - and a long message that began: "We are against internet Censorship." The group has asked tomorrow's protesters to wear Guy Fawkes masks.
The message went on to explain the motivation for attacks by Anonymous India. In late March, the Madras High Court issued John Doe orders to prevent the sharing of pirated versions of the Tamil film 3 and the Telugu film Dammu.
John Doe orders - or Ashok Kumar orders in India - are issued when the identity of the defendant is known only in hindsight, after the orders have been passed.
The court was acting on a plea by Copyright Labs, an intellectual property firm that represents the producers of 3 and Dammu. Only in mid-May, however, did ISPs begin to act upon these orders.
Instead of preventing the sharing of specific content, the ISPs blocked all access to the file-sharing sites specified in a letter sent to them by Copyright Labs. These sites included video-streaming sites such as Vimeo and Dailymotion as well as Torrent engines such as Isohunt and Pirate Bay.
Anonymous India's message on the MTNL website read: "Why is that ISPs are forced to block file sharing websites? Why is that instead of blocking few links the whole domain was blocked? The blocking of these websites is wrong and unjustified."
On its Facebook page, Anonymous India has indicated that it would soon target the websites of Reliance and Airtel, two other ISPs that have blocked file-sharing web sites. It has received enthusiastic responses to that post.
"Take down both ... in a way that the government understands what they have done by taking away the freedom of internet," Facebook user Sankalp Mukherjee commented.
Anonymous's hacking of websites, said Pranesh Prakash, a lawyer and policy analyst at the Bangalore-based Centre for internet and Society, are unlikely to do any real harm. Most such attacks, he said yesterday "are symbolic in nature and don't affect the functionality of the underlying service".
The ethics of Anonymous apart, India's "draconian internet laws" needed examination, Mr Prakash said.
"It is wrong of our criminal justice systems to treat computer-related crimes, which they essentially do not understand, as somehow more malicious than offline crimes," he said. "Regardless of what one thinks of Anonymous, the laws are faulty."
The Anonymous campaign comes in the midst of a torrid season for free speech on the internet in India. In mid-April, police in Kolkata arrested a university professor for forwarding to his friends a cartoon of the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
In December, Kapil Sibal, the minister for telecommunications, had asked social media websites to pre-screen and delete content what might offend the "sensibilities" of people. "We will not allow internet companies to throw up their hands and say: 'We cannot do anything about it'," Mr Sibal said in a statement.
Anonymous India has, in the past, reacted to perceived censorship of the internet in India. Last month, it hacked the websites of the Supreme Court and of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's main opposition party.
It was, Mr Prakash said, too early to tell how effective Anonymous would be.
"Given that the success of a protest or a movement is often synonymous to the amount of mass media coverage, I would say that this is proving to be a modest success so far," he said.
"If one is instead to measure the success of a movement by actual influence on policymakers, I frankly don't foresee Anonymous having much impact."