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.

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