The Mystery of the Blocked Websites

This post comes at a time when unfortunately, the selective threat to our freedom of speech and expression has become a very uncomfortable reality.

Regulation of the internet especially censorship of speech on the internet has been a predominant debate everywhere. The arrest of the pro-ISIS Twitter handler in Bangalore recently as well as the alleged recruitment of certain ISIS supporters via the internet is bound to increase the government’s scrutiny of the web.

In the middle of this turmoil, the internet community was set aTwitter by the news of a certain notification by the Department of Information and Technology ordering all ‘Internet Service Licensees’ to block with immediate effect 32 websites. Among the first to circulate this image was Centre of Internet and Society’s Pranesh Prakash.

The supposed notification from the Dept. of Telecom with the list of 32 websites
The supposed notification from the Dept. of Telecom with the list of 32 websites

 So, well what’s so mysterious about this right?

Firstly, what is the accurateness of this notification?

Surprisingly, the notification does not include any signature nor any header address. The websites of the Department of Telecommunication and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology show no record of the notifications. (http://www.dot.gov.in/circulars/information-technologyit)(http://deity.gov.in/content/notifications)

However PTI’s article as seen on NitiCentral is of the opinion that the circular is real even in the absence of any official word about it. (http://www.niticentral.com/2014/12/31/govt-blocks-websites-carrying-anti-india-content-from-isis-294253.html)

Also, the one of the few persons talking about the ban and acknowledging its existence is Arvind Gupta. Who is Arvind Gupta? He is the head of the BJP’s IT Cell.

The other such person is a certain Mr. Gulshan Rai – head of the Indian Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (http://deity.gov.in/content/indian-computer-emergency-response-team-cert-dpl-rtoi) who has been mentioned in a Wall Street Journal quoting that the content on the websites banned is “very, very damaging”. Does this mean that the circular is valid?

Curioser and Curioser, eh?

Secondly, when can the Government enact bans on websites?

Lets assume for the time being that this notification is actually applicable. The question now is can the government actually ban these sites?

On one hand while Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India gives you the freedom of speech and expression, Article 19(2) says that the Government cannot make any law restricting this freedom of speech except when it enacts certain reasonable restrictions on this speech. These include ‘in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order’.

So, in continuation with the power above, the Government can ban certain websites by S. 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. But this has to be done as per the process of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking of Access to the Public) Rules, 2009. (Here is the full document http://dispur.nic.in/itact/it-procedure-safeguards-blocking-access-rules-2009.pdf)

In short the process is something like this –

1. There should be a proper complaint in writing by certain persons only.

2. There should be a Committee evaluating the complaint on the merits.

3. There should be active efforts to locate the person who has hosted objectionable material on the web source mentioned. (i.e. who has hosted the ISIS related content on that specific website in this case)

4. Once such person is identified, that person should be sent a notice and there is an obligation on such a person to reply to this notice. A minimum 48 hours time is to be given to this person.

5. The Committee shall then decide whether the content can actually be blocked under S. 69A and convey their request of banning to the Secretary, Department of Information Technology.

6. Then if this Secretary approves this request will ask another Designated Officer who shall direct any agency or intermediary to block the questionable content.

Whew, that is quite some process eh?

There’s another process that these rules talk about. In case of emergency. In case of an emergency and an IMMEDIATE need too, the Secretary HAS to evaluate if its necessary to expediently block certain content.

Now, there are conflicting reports regarding the notice being received by these 32 websites. Certain sources stated in a Hindu Article that all the websites were indeed served a show-cause notice but only 5 or 6 replied. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/now-modi-govt-blocks-32-websites/article6742372.ece) On the other hand, certain websites have stated that they have not received any such notice. ( So, were these websites not served the notice at all? Was the due process not followed?

Thirdly, has the ban been effected?

The tweet from Pastebin
The tweet from Pastebin

Users have been complaining about the inability to access these websites for quite some time. But again, this has been a divided poll. I for one could access almost all the websites on the list.

However even after the alleged unblocking, users have not been able to access these websites. (http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-01-07/news/57792004_1_section-69a-websites-internet-service-providers)

Fourthly, why these particular websites?

Github is a primary source for a lot of developers. What is the logic behind banning a site that merely is a platform for sharing and developing codes?

While Vimeo, a video sharing site may have objectionable content, it states that it has a policy of removing any such content forthright and can even do so when a particular government asks it to. Well, why didn’t the government just flag the objectionable content?

Pastebin and other paste sites too are for storing data and are largely used by developers. While you can paste objectionable material, it cannot be retrieved unless you know exactly what to look for. Again the question, why not just flag the inappropriate content.

Lastly, The Internet Archive. This is a repository which hosts copies of internet content. Is the material really so damaging as to validate the removal of all the copies?

The question that arises is this – what should be done?

Three points mainly –

1. In this case we’re so clueless we don’t even know if there’s a ban or not. Defeats the whole purpose, right? So, there should be more transparency about when a ban is enacted and why it is enacted. And exactly against whom it is enacted.

2. This information should come from an official source. Not the Twitter handle of a non-minister.

3. And lastly, on one hand you want to promote Make in India. On the other hand you want to ban the backbone of developers, boss, that’s not going to work. Tell the public when you plan on making some websites off grid, yeah?

Meanwhile, stay educated. Stay informed. And watch this space for an update on this – a statistical one.

Oh and do message me if you have had problems accessing the websites on the list. Don’t forget to mention your ISP, your plan and your device.

Why you need to make some noise over net neutrality… In India.

Imagine this scenario. Your monthly electricity bill arrives. You expect it to state one amount based on the number of units you’ve consumed. But it looks something like this:

Electricity payment for consumption by TV – Rs. 500

Electricity payment for consumption by light bulbs – Rs. 300

Electricity payment for consumption by Laptops and Smart phones – Rs. 800

Well, you would be correct in exclaiming what kind of bullcrap the bill is.

Guess what? Your Internet Service Provider is trying to do the same with you.

Let me get to the point. Net neutrality means that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the government HAVE to treat all data on the internet equally. Simply put the only commandment is, “Thou shall not discriminate among different web services.”

So, where is the conflict in India?

Here –Airtel wants you to pay extra for Voice over IP (VoIP) services that are Skype and Viber. (http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/12/24/bharti-airtel-rates-idINKBN0K20SU20141224)

This is not new; Airtel chief Mr. Bharti has wanted to do this for quite some time now.

Here’s what he said at the World Mobile Congress in 2012 “When somebody watches YouTube on a mobile phone and ends up [with a] big bill, he curses under his breath at the telecom operators. But YouTube is consuming a massive amount of resources on our network. Somebody’s got to pay for that.” (www.cnet.com/news/mobile-operators-stop-picking-on-us-or-else/)

Mr. Bharti, we are paying for that. It’s called the amount we pay for having internet.

However, Airtel is not the only player.Airtel has come out openly with its plan to charge VoIPs which has drawn flak from all of us. However, certain other ISPs have been doing this too.

Here’s a list –While Airtel wants to charge extra for VoIPs, our homegrown and amazing BSNL is of the opinion that VoIPs like Skype are illegal. *insert slow clap* (http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/industry-and-economy/info-tech/as-debate-over-net-telephony-rages-govt-to-reexamine-services-offered-by-skype-google/article4404537.ece)

Why has BSNL taken this stand? BSNL introduced its video calling services. Now these services are at a very affordable rate of Rs. 2.5 per minute. *Public Welfare, you say?* It has no data consumption and requires you to purchase certain hardware from BSNL. *you don’t say*

Now, how do we make consumers go for a paid service like that offered by BSNL from the free services offered by Skype and Hangout? Simple, I declare that Skype and Hangouts are illegal.

Another proposed way is by the ISPs demanding popular services like Whatsapp and Facebook to pay them (ISPs) revenue for using their services. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/tech-news/Facebook-WhatsApp-others-must-be-taxed-Vodafone/articleshow/44820006.cms )

One more way is by providing preferential access to certain services whereby a differential treatment is meted out to other similar services. This has been one of the contentions especially in the US debates on net neutrality. TRAI was recently investigating into Airtel and Uninor providing special deals for Whatsapp and Facebook. (http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-11-25/news/56455517_1_net-neutrality-mobile-data-services-uninor)  Going a little Latin here does this amount to inclusio unius est exclusion alterius – meaning, by including one do you exclude all others? Does the faster speed channel immediately mean slower speed for all others, and if so don’t you violate the free access and the demand supply feature which is the basis of the Internet?

So, what remedy do we have?The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) which is in charge of this essentially is of the opinion that Airtel and like ISPs can’t be held responsible for breaching Net Neutrality.

Here’s what the TRAI chief had to say about Airtel’s move – (http://www.financialexpress.com/article/industry/companies/cant-fault-airtel-on-voip-rates-rahul-khullar/23513/ )

“Let’s be clear on this. What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot today say the move is illegal as there’s no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator.

It is quite nice to note here that in 2006, TRAI had invited opinions regarding the regulation of net neutrality. You can access it here. (http://www.trai.gov.in/WriteReaddata/ConsultationPaper/Document/consultation27dec06.pdf)However, no action was taken on it, no law was made. And now the same is being used to protect institutions which are breaching Net Neutrality.

So, what do we do? We demand a law. AND we demand that this manhandling by ISPs be stopped right away.

Net neutrality is pious to me and all those who hold the internet dear and unless we enforce it properly, it is definitely going to come and bite us in the wallets.

http://www.netneutrality.in has a fascinating approach to make the government recognize the need to have a law in place. [Send an email as I have to Ravi Shankar Prasad. Union Minister, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology –ravis@sansad.nic.in AND TRAI. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. ap@trai.gov.in, secretary@trai.gov.in]

I understand that businesses are going to take a short hit due to web services replacing calls (Skype, Hangouts, Viber and other VoIPs) as also Messaging services (Whatsapp, Messenger etc.). But we need to accept that development of technology will render other technology obsolete. What you need to do is improve your services *cough Customer Care cough* and not charge for services which are actually boosting your internet sales. Can ISPs actually afford to take such action especially in a country with 243 million internet users and increasing exponentially – MORE than even the USA? (http://www.forbes.com/sites/afontevecchia/2014/07/07/indias-massive-e-commerce-opportunity-and-the-explosion-of-mobile/) A little business sense would suggest that the revenue from increasing subscriptions would far outweigh the lost revenue on snail calls and SMSes.

That’s it for now.

Watch this space for more updates. In the meanwhile keep yourself educated about net neutrality because ignorance is not bliss. Two of my favourite sources who make net neutrality fun to read – The Oatmeal (herewww.theoatmeal.com/blog/net_neutrality ) and the one and only John Oliver (here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpbOEoRrHyU)