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How India Should Approach Website Blocking


First and foremost: I do not in support of blocking content on the Internet. I believe that the Internet is a multi-cast medium, rather than broadcast medium: communication on the Internet is one-to-many, rather than one-to-all, and for the most bit, users have the choice to receive and view what is being shared with them. They can choose to ignore, unfriend and deregister.

However, I do realize that there are instances where India’s Department of Telecom has to order ISPs to block access to specific webpages and websites on grounds of national security and public order*, or when it is ordered to do so by Courts.

Last year, I had made the following recommendations on India’s IT Rules, as a member of a Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) on Internet Governance set up by FICCI. These recommendations were shared with India’s Department of Telecom by FICCI, as well as by me in an open discussion with CERT-IN head Gulshan Rai and IT Secretary R. Chandrashekhar. I’m publishing them below, because it’s become relevant to mention these, and the DoT hasn’t done anything to improve its processes, in terms of transparency:

1. Specific terminology regarding restrictions: The broad phrases included in the IT Rules are a cause for concern since bring in scope for misuse, and lay grounds for illegitimate censorship of content on the web and unreasonable restrictions. The phrases need to be changed/revisited, and those such as “grossly harmful”, blasphemy, “impacting friendly relations between nations”, “disparaging” among others, need to be removed and/or made specific.

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2. Increase transparency: Lack of transparency leads to lack of trust. People need to know what has been blocked, why it has been blocked, who has taken the decision to block it, and what is the process of getting the block removed (if it is my page). When citizens visit a blocked page, there should be all of this information, for that specific page, even more detailed than what the government of Kuwait does. Transparency will ensure accountability. In addition, the government must maintain a public list of blocked sites, along with reasons and options for recourse in each case. Also, the government must itself follow the processes outlined by them, and transparency will help ensure this.

3. Recourse needs to be established: If my page is blocked, there needs to be adequate protection for me, as a creator of content, a citizen and/or a business entity. It’s not possible for me to go to court in each instance, to get a block removed. Let the complainant go to court to validate his complaint within a specified time period, for which the block remains active. If not, the block should be removed. There should also be a counter-notice mechanism, and a limited (maximum) timeframe of one week for which a block may be allowed to be put into place without judicial approval.

4. Limitations need to be put on the actions of intermediaries when it comes to blocking. The state’s job is to not just prevent malicious content, but also to protect the rights of citizens, in terms of freedom of expression. After Anonymous India hacked into the servers of one intermediary (ISP/Telco), it was revealed that several of the links blocked had not been mandated by courts or the government, but were those critical of the intermediary. This means that ISPs are themselves potentially curtailing freedom of expression online, and this needs to be looked into. The government needs to protect the rights of citizens.

If you look at these recommendations in the light of URLs critical of IIPM being blocked, here is how the above guidelines would have helped:
1. We would have a public list of all the URLs blocked by the DoT following the court order, because the order (which we got from our source and published), would have been made public.
2. We would have a copy of the court order received by the DoT, with the URLs.
3. The DoT would not have been in a position to go beyond its mandate and block additional URLs, beyond those listed in the court order. We’re not saying that it has done that, but it would not be able to do that if the court order was also public.
4. ISPs would not been able to go beyond mandate of the DoT order or the court order.

Transparency will make a big difference.

* because URLs are often a threat to national security and public order**
** Sarcasm, in case you didn’t get it