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October 20, 1997


Protest against VSNL's banning of ShellSock

The Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited's move to block the use of 'ShellSock' software has invited criticism from the software's creators and Internet users across the country.

The free software, which enables users of the text-only 'shell' and 'student' type accounts to access graphics (normally associated with the thrice-as-expensive TCP/IP type accounts), has been a boon to thousands of Net users who could not afford TCP/IP accounts.

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VSNL, which is currently the country's sole commercial Internet service provider, charges Rs 15,0000 per annum for TCP/IP accounts (as against the Rs 5,000 for shell accounts and Rs 500 for student accounts).

The government-run company has reportedly begun blocking access to users of 'ShellSock' starting on October 1. The reason provided by the firm - the use of ShellSock was not only reducing its revenues, but also lowering the quality of service offered to other 'paying' customers.

The Kerala Internet Forum, the Kochi-based organisation of Net users, is leading the campaign to create "awareness" against VSNL's action. The forum is currently conducting an electronic signature campaign over the Internet.

The forum has placed the resolution drawn up at its 'emergency meeting' of October 4 on the Net and has invited all "interested persons" to register their support with it.

"We protest against further restriction of the shell account by VSNL for extraneous reasons. By this action, the chairman of VSNL has rendered himself ineligible to be the arbitrator under Clause 19 of the contract as the decision to further restriction is taken at his level and it is against the nation's interests," the KIF resolution says.

However, a KIF representative said the organisation "was not too optimistic" about a favourable outcome. "There is very little that we can actually do. We can only raise awareness and get people to talk to VSNL. We are hoping that better sense will prevail," he said.

Xtend Technologies, the creators of the software, have adopted a more strident approach. 'VSNL attempts to kill off ShellSock!' screams the company's makeshift Internet home page.

"In an unprecedented move, VSNL, the monopoly ISP in India has unilaterally proceeded with its India-wide attempt to cripple ShellSock - a perfectly legal and ingenious software used by over 25,000 shell users," the company's note says.

According to Xtend Tech's note, the use of ShellSock is "perfectly legal" as the software is "at heart a communication software that runs only on the user system" and does not have anything to do with the ISP.

"ShellSock uses normal and documented shell commands that a user can actually type in to retrieve a HTML or Graphics file. Therefore, ShellSock does not use any loopholes in the shell account. All the commands that ShellSock uses are fully documented either in the UNIX manual or in the user manuals of the respective software," the note adds.

The note also claims that the use of ShellSock does not constitute "hacking" into VSNL's TCP/IP network.

According to Xtend Tech, none of the 19 clauses in the shell account contract (required by VSNL) specify that users can access only textual material. "Therefore, implicitly you have been given the right to access graphics," it claims. "After all, the contract is for a specific number of hours you spend online and not for the amount of data transferred," its note says.

Xtend Tech further claims that it was always possible for users to download graphics and view it using an "image viewer" software. According to the company, ShellSock (which was launched a few months back) only automates the graphics download process and passes it onto a Web-browser software like the Netscape Navigator or Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

"VSNL cannot object to a facility that was in place ever since their service was started, when all we have done was to give the shell user some automation... programs to help them along. VSNL objecting to the usage of ShellSock is actually objecting to the shell user automating his tasks," it says.

Formed less than a year ago, the Cochin-based Xtend Technologies is run by computer experts and Internet consultants Kurian Thomas and K Jayakrishnan.

However, VSNL is not without its share of supporters. According to a representative of the Internet Users' Club of India, it was only a "matter of time" before VSNL acted against the use of ShellSock. "VSNL, in fact, sent an email to all its users advising against the use of the software. The company had started to find out that more and more student users are starting to use it, leading to quite a serious loss of revenues. This latest action is unfortunate, but probably inevitable," he says.

- Compiled from the Indian media

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