Indian ISPs block entertainment sites for Oman users

IN Media Freedom | 19/07/2012
Indian ISPs are filtering content for Oman 'net users, extending 'national'-level filtering to upstream' filtering of content,
says a research report from CITIZEN LAB

Excerpts from the report: Routing gone wild: Documenting upstream filtering in Oman via India

 Key Findings

   Data collected from Oman shows that web filtering applied by India-based ISPs is restricting access to content for customers of an ISP in Oman. While unusual, content filtering undertaken in one political jurisdiction can have an effect on users in another political jurisdiction as a result of ISP routing arrangements – a phenomenon known as “upstream filtering.”

   Content found to be filtered includes news sites, political blogs and file sharing sites.

   Some variability in filtering was documented, potentially linked to certain measures to loosen filtering regulations in India.


The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) has investigated Internet filtering and surveillance practices since 2003 and has documented national-level filtering of the Internet in over forty countries.2 Traditionally, such filtering is implemented by Internet service providers (ISPs) at the request of governments for the purpose of restricting content available to domestic audiences. In general, conventional web filtering is designed for exclusively domestic impact, though other forms of content control, such as takedown requests, may affect access across borders.

However, content filtration is not always limited by jurisdiction. ISPs may engage in peering3 or transit agreements4 with other providers as a means of gaining access to the broader Internet. If ISPs peer with providers who filter the connection provided to their peers, that filtering may be passed on to the ISP’s user base. While unusual, past ONI research has documented this practice, known as “upstream filtering,” on several occasions. For example, in 2009, ONI research in Kyrgyzstan found that a number of websites, including news sites and blogging platforms, were inaccessible as a result of blocking by the state ISP in Kazakhstan, which sells its service to KyrgyzTelecom.5 Similar behaviour was observed in Uzbekistan in 2004, where content filtering on one Uzbek ISP closely matched that seen in China, a finding supplemented by evidence that this ISP was purchasing connectivity service from China Telecom.6

This brief documents and analyzes the upstream filtering of web content for users of Oman’s Omantel ISP as a result of content restrictions implemented in India. Both India and Oman, it should be noted, already have domestic filtering regimes in place. Previous research by the OpenNet Initiative on Omantel has documented filtering of Internet content related to pornography, circumvention tools, gay and lesbian content, as well as content critical of religion.7 Similar research by the OpenNet Initiative has found that ISPs in India selectively filter content relating to conflict/security and Internet tools, with a high degree of variability between ISPs.8

Omantel has existing relationships with ISPs in India. Omantel and Indian ISP Bharti Airtel have a traffic peering arrangement through ASNs9 AS8529 and AS9498, respectively.10 Bharti Airtel was in fact reported to be a leading contender to purchase a 25% stake in Omantel during that ISP’s privatization process in 200811; however, by 2011 the sale was reportedly on hold.12 Also in 2008, Bharti Airtel and Omantel were among the 15 companies that partnered to build the Europe India Gateway, a 15,000 kilometer fibre optic cable project connecting 13 countries.13


Data was gathered for this research from a number of sources. Access to the Omantel network was obtained through publicly available proxies and through testing undertaken by individuals located in Oman who are customers of Omantel’s service. An automated process was run that attempted to access a list of several hundred URLs suspected to be blocked. The results of this process were analyzed to identify blocked content. The URLs that were identified as blocked were then manually confirmed by testers in Oman.

Lists of content suspected of being blocked were gathered from a number of sources. First, content suspected of blocking in past ONI testing in India was compiled. Second, Anonymous India made public a list of allegedly blocked URLs that the group claims were obtained by hacking of Indian ISP Reliance.14 This list of content was also added to the list of tested URLs.


Testing conducted on June 18-19, 2012 through an Omantel proxy confirmed that Omantel continues to filter the content categories found in previous ONI testing. This filtering is done transparently, as users are presented with an explicit block page as seen in Figure 1 when they attempt to access banned content.

Figure 1: Block page on Omantel

However, for a number of URLs tested in Oman, a different block page was displayed, as seen in Figure 2:

Figure 2: Block page found during testing on Omantel

The text of this block page is consistent with numerous reports of block pages employed in content filtering in India.15 A list of several hundred URLs was then tested, with 41 of these found to display the block page seen in Figure 2 (the “India block page”). These URLs were also accessed from the Citizen Lab in Toronto, with no sites found to display the block page text seen in Figure 2.

The following URLs were found to be blocked with this block page on Omantel:

Many of these URLs are sites dedicated to Indian and Pakistani culture and entertainment, including file sharing sites with links to Bollywood movies and Indian and Pakistani music. Others are blogging platforms or media/free expression sites. The URL is the website of the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center, while is a blog that discusses Internet censorship in India.

A number of factors lead to the conclusion that this is in fact upstream filtering in Oman as a result of content filtering in India. First, the block page seen in Figure 2 refers to the ‘Department of Telecommunications’; India’s telecommunications regulator is called the Department of Telecommunications,16 while Oman’s sector is regulated by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.17 Second, tracer outes of attempts to access blocked content demonstrate that traffic passed through India….

In this trace route, it can be seen in hop #9 that traffic from Oman, where the URL was requested, to the hosting provider in the United States, passes through Bharti Airtel in India. This website, which is an Indian music and movie download site, was blocked with the India block page in Oman. While the passage of network traffic through another country is not in itself unusual, the return of an India block page in Oman would not occur without the passage of network traffic through India.

Next, much of the content found to be blocked is related to India and does not seem consistent with past filtering practices observed in Oman. This primarily includes file sharing and multimedia sites relating to Indian culture, including Bollywood movies and Indian music. Further, as mentioned above, many of the URLs found to be blocked with the India block page have been reported elsewhere as prohibited content in India. Finally, the text seen in the India block page is widely reported by Indian Internet users and media in discussions of blocked content in India, which content includes many of the URLs found to be blocked in Oman.18

 (For the full report, please click on link above).

Note: The OpenNet Initiative is a collaborative partnership of three institutions: the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto; the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; and the SecDev Group (Ottawa). Research, analysis, and writing of this report was undertaken by the Citizen Lab.

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