Update: Mouthshut is no longer blocked by Beam Fibre or ACT Internet, but it’s not clear why the website was blocked to begin with.
Earlier: Review site Mouthshut has been blocked by Bangalore-based ISP ACT Internet and its Hyderabad-based subsidiary Beam Fibre for the past few days. The company got in touch with the nodal officer of Beam Internet, who confirmed the fact that the website was blocked, but he did not know why it was blocked or by whom. The officer said that he would get in touch with the company with more details, but he has not responded to Mouthshut’s complaints even after 24 hours. The company has now escalated the issue to TRAI and DoT.
— FAISAL FAROOQUI (@faisalMouthshut) February 5, 2014
Mouthshut founder and CEO Faisal Farooqui said that the company will take legal action if Beam does not respond and unblock them. “Nobody in India has blocked Mouthshut ever, anywhere. From what we understand only a team in the Ministry of communication and information technology can issue such an order, but even they need to send a written letter to the service provider justifying the ban, such as violation of national security or pornography,” Farooqui says.
The company noticed a dip in traffic a few days back, but the company thought it might have be due to a DNS issue or because of a change in Google’s algorithm. However, they noticed that the reduction in traffic was consistent over a few days and around this time they got a call from a Mouthshut user in Hyderabad who informed that the website was inaccessible in Hyderabad. They received more complaints from Hyderabad which helped the company localise the issue to the city. Then they noticed that all the people who complained were using Beam Fibre.
Beam has become one of the popular ISPs in Hyderabad by offering fast Internet connections through their FTTH service and due to this block placed by this ISP, Mouthshut’s traffic from Hyderabad reduced by 40%. The company also noticed that Bangaloreans who were using service offered by ACT Internet were also not able to access the website. ACT covers only a portion of Bangalore, but due to the block, traffic to the website from the city reduced by 10%.
Not an isolated case: This does not appear to be an isolated incident, just couple of days back we received a complaint from the owner of a cinema website tollywoodandhra.in who said that the website was blocked by Beam, TATA and BSNL without any warning sent to him. When he reached out to find out more about the situation, he could not get more information from them. He approached AP film chamber and they could not find any reason why the website should have been blocked. The website owner told Medianama that TollywoodAndhra was similarly blocked in 2012, when a John Doe order was issued for Dammu movie.
So could Mouthshut also be a victim of such a John Doe order? We do not know for sure and all we can do is speculate. However, considering the fact that the blocking has happened at ISP level we can’t think of any other way this could have been done legally.
Ethics of blocking: We have written in the past about the procedure ISPs should follow while website blocking. To begin with, instead of just stating that the website is blocked, they should set up a special page through which websites can get in touch with ISPs to contest the block. Also, there needs to be more transparency on which court issued the ban, based on whose appeal and why this specific website was blocked. Such levels of transparency can help all parties involved to rectify such a situation in case a website is blocked by mistake. However, the way system works now no one has a clear idea of why a website is blocked, by whom, on whose order and why.
In this case, it is worth noting that Mouthshut has escalated the issue to TRAI and DoT, so we are hopeful that these organisations will step in and try to fix this mess. We understand that ISPs have to respect a legal notice and block websites if they are told to, but a bit of transparency can go a long way in avoiding such issues in the future.