The District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum at Shimoga (Karnataka) has penalised Airtel for deficiency in providing Internet access when it blocked torrent sites earlier this year, following a Madras High Court Order received by Copyright Labs. Ruling in favour of the complainant, Vinay B, a resident of Shimoga, the consumer forum has directed Airtel to pay Rs 20,000 to the complainant (and pay interest at 9% per annum till date of payment), for deficiency in service and for causing mental agony, and Rs 2,000 towards litigation charges. A copy of the Court’s order is available here.

Complaint: Vinay B, a resident of Shimoga, filed a complaint against Airtel, alleging that while trying to access a torrent site from his mobile phone over a GPRS connection, he encountered the “Access to this site has been blocked as per court orders” message, in place of the web page. Following calls and e-mails to the customer service, Airtel failed to come up with a satisfactory response, and apparently misinterpreted the Madras High Court order blocking an entire website instead of a particular film clip, according to the complainant. Airtel’s nodal officer came up with a response that the court order did not specify if Airtel should not ban the entire site, instead. Vinay informs MediaNama that he had the support of a consumer rights organization called CREDIT (Citizen Rights Education Development and Implementation Trust from Bhadravathi, Karnataka.

Forum’s observations: The forum observed that the blocking of the site ‘amounts to deficiency in service and unfair trade practice.’ It noted that for about more than one and half months, the illegal block was imposed by Airtel as the website was blocked in the last week of May 2012 and the block had been withdrawn from July 15th of 2012.

Airtel, in spite of being served summons decided not to contest the complaint. Since the affidavit of the complainant has gone unchallenged, the forum considered it as the ground to prove the deficiency in service on the part of Airtel.

Our Take: We feel that ISPs, in this specific case, Airtel, needed to be more transparent, in their communication with their customers, as they were denying access to a service for which the customer is paying them a service charge. While the ISPs overcompensated in the name of abiding to Court orders by blocking legitimate websites to save themselves, the picture they presented to their customers was that they had no option. While private entities like Airtel do not fall under the ambit of RTI, state owned ISP, MTNL, had responded to Software Freedom Law Center, Delhi’s RTI disclosing the exact cause of the block along with the list of sites suggested by the production house. The customer has the right to be informed about the exact cause of the block, and ISPs should have given detailed disclosures similar to Google’s DMCA complaints.

This case in particular should set a precedent for ISPs to bear in mind while cutting off access to websites, or by accepting demands being made by a film producer. What the Consumer Forum has done is made Airtel accountable for how it interpreted the Madras High Court order, and subjected its customers to a blanket ban.

The Block: In May, a number of ISPs including Reliance Communications and Airtel had blocked video sharing sites Vimeo and DailyMotion, a large number of Torrent search sites like thepiratebay, text and code sharing platform Pastebin, and bookmarks sharing site Xmarks, following a John Doe order taken by Copyright Labs, Chennai, from the Madras High Court, for preventing piracy of Tamil Films Dammu and 3.

However, after nearly a month of blocking these web sites, an appeal was filed by a consortium of Internet Service Providers in the Madras High Court, asking for specificity in complaints of infringing content, instead of a John Doe/Ashok Kumar order. The Court granted relief by clarifying that the injunction was granted only in respect of a particular URL where the infringing movie was kept and not in respect of the entire website, and directed the applicant(production house) to inform about the exact URL where the interim movie was found within 48 hours.

Note: We had requested Airtel for their response to this ruling, but none has been forthcoming. We’ll update in case there’s any.