July 28, 2006 12:06:57 am
Fourteen days after the government asked Interent Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to four ‘‘offensive’’ blogs, India’s world-renowned computer techies have not been able to selectively ban only those websites. Instead, all of blogspot, geocities and typepad.com are only accessible in fits and starts throughout the country.
ISPs say this is due to technical constraints, but now, some experts are saying that the situation is more a sign of incompetence than technical constraints.
‘‘There are tools for ISPs to block websites selectively, but the skills to use those tools appear missing,’’ says Suresh Ramasubramanian, Manager, Antispam Operations, Outblaze Ltd. Hong Kong-based Outblaze Ltd is one of the world’s largest providers of e-mail services, with 40,000,000 active users.
Ramasubramanian believes that ISPs with backdated technology may have to spend between a few thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars to come up to date. However, he says, the long-term cost of not upgrading will be far higher.
‘‘ISPs have used sledgehammer approach in this ban, which is needed only when the volume of harmful traffic from a website—like spam or viruses—is far higher than the harmless content,’’ he adds.
Besides, there are other ways to block websites, one suggested by the ISP Association of India (ISPAI) in a July 19 advisory. It said that ISPs should ‘‘block sites at the DNS level’’. DNS servers are a small but essential part of the Internet that translate website names into numbers, like a mobile phone address book. With the ISPAI method, every time a banned website is requested, a surfer gets a ‘‘null’’ or ‘‘void’’ response, making the ban effective.
‘‘The catch here is that many offices maintain their own DNS servers, and their employees would have been able to access the banned sites unhindered,’’ says ISPAI Secretary Deepak Maheshwari. In a letter sent to the government on July 20 on behalf of ISPs, Maheshwari also says that the blanket ban is basically an error on the side of ‘‘abundant caution’’.
On July 21, ISPAI sent another missive to the government which said: ‘‘…if the directions are to block a specific URL containing an extension (/), it is impractical to block only the specific website/webpage linked to such extension names, and in such cases, the ISPs would have to perforce block the whole website.’’
‘‘But with the ISPAI method itself the ban would have been immediately applicable to 70 or 80 per cent of the population,’’ Subramanian counters.
Where this he said-she said will end is anybody’s guess, but this inability to block websites selectively does indicate a vulnerability to bigger scourges on the Internet than militants or blogs: Viruses and spam. ‘‘If they want to stop websites that spread viruses or people from sending spam, they should be able to block sites selectively,’’ says Subramanian.
Recent studies have not only shown that India is one of the biggest homes for spam, but also that ISPs can spend more on managing spam-related complaints of customers than on upgrading technology and hiring quality programmers to block websites.
In a May 2005 report for the Task Force on Spam of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Ramasubramanian notes that a large developed-country ISP can spend ‘‘several hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars a year’’ to support users upset over being spammed.
In short, ISPs can chose not to upgrade, but those investments are not just meant to push gag orders, but also to assist a bigger worldwide war against spam and viruses.
• Tools to block websites selectively available, skills to use them missing
• Inability to block websites selectively indicates vulnerability to viruses and spam.
• ISPAI an effective ban method, whereby every time a banned website is requested, a surfer gets a ‘‘null’’ or ‘‘void’’ response.
• If directions are to block a specific URL containing an extension (/), ISPs need to block whole website.
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