Ripoff Report, a consumer complaints website, has been blocked in India, members at the India GII mailing list pointed out recently. We checked, and on trying to access RipoffReport.com via Airtel mobile and MTNL Broadband, we get a page that has the words “Access Denied”.

This block is particularly relevant because it comes at a time when MouthShut.com, which is provides a similar consumer feedback servicein India, has begun legal proceedings in India’s Supreme Court against the IT Rules, which are being used to inhibit freedom of speech in India; Farooqui had said then that MouthShut “been threatened with hundreds of legal notices, cybercrime complaints and defamation cases. At other times, officers from various police stations call our office, demanding deletion of various reviews or face dire consequences under the IT rules”, and the problem is that IT Rules”would require MouthShut.com to remove any negative review about a company or brand simply because they don’t like it, irrespective of the facts stated in the review.” This development only emphasizes the need for MouthShut to go to court.

Screenshot from 2013-07-28

However, to be fair, RipOffReport isn’t particularly popular – see this report where it is called ‘electronic terrorism’, because businesses have to pay for ‘positive reviews’, and according to Forbes, for the ability to respond to consumer complaints. Even if that is the case, blocking a site in its entirety is not a legitimate solution.

A few things to note about this particular website block:

1. According to members reports on India GII mailing list, RipoffReport is blocked on Reliance Broadband, ACT Broadband and Vodafone Mobile, but we haven’t been able to independently verify this. Typically, ISP’s don’t always implement blocks the same way, and blocks aren’t always universal, so this appears to be a fairly unique instance.

2. The same ‘Access to Website Blocked’ message appearing across service providers (and we could be wrong about this), indicates that the block could have been instituted at a common node, like a landing station for international bandwidth, rather than at an ISP level. Do let us know if you’re getting a message different from this, and which ISP you are getting this message from.

3. This is very different from the message which is typically shared on blocked websites. Those messages usually state that “Access to this site has been blocked as per court orders’, or ‘This site has been blocked as per instructions from Department of Telecom (DOT). If course, there have been instances where websites have been blocked with no clear indication of why the blocks have been instituted. At this point in time, we don’t know why RipoffReport has been blocked, and whether this is action taken by ISPs themselves, or pursuant to a DoT dictat or a court order.

You can add this to the still unsolved mysteries of website blocks in India, some of the more recent instances of which include:

A wedding album on facebook
Care.org Blocked On Vodafone & Spectranet
Zedge App Blocked On Some Indian ISPs & Telcos
– Filesharing Sites Uploaded.net, Ul.to, Stooorage, imagebam.com, imgbox.com, and the blog lookingglass.blog.co.uk

Last year, we had given the following recommendations to the DoT regarding website blocks:

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.

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.

More on that here.