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India blocks 32 sites including github; some blocks removed

The department of telecommunications has initiated action to unblock four websites after they said that they will not allow posting of Jihadi propaganda and also work with the government to remove such material. The four websites are Weebly, Dailymotion, Vimeo and GithubGist, reports IANS.

Earlier the government had ordered to block 32 websites, which includes software code repositories  such as Github and Sourceforge, for allegedly posting pro-ISIS messages on them. (We really want to know what kind of propaganda can be shown through lines of code. Even comments in code is stretching it a bit) The DoT invoked Section 69 A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and in the order said that “the compliance be submitted immediately, failing which the Department may initiate action under Rule 12 of the Information Technology Rules 2009 (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking  of Access of Information by Public). ”

The BJP’s IT Cell national head, Arvind Gupta, on Twitter said: ” The websites that have been blocked were based on an advisory by Anti Terrorism Squad, and were carrying Anti India content from ISIS. The sites that have removed objectionable content and/or cooperated with the ongoing investigations, are being unblocked.”

Here’s the thing, it’s very unclear on what constitutes as compliance and what these sites had to remove to ensure that their services were unblocked. If the idea was to stem pro-Jihadi messages on these sites, why were entire domains targeted and not just individual pages. The government also hasn’t specified any process for unblocking these websites. Freedom of speech is primary, and reasonable restrictions are secondary. Extreme cases cannot determine how everyone else’s speech is governed.

It is also worth noting that earlier in December, the Indian government asked telecom operators and ISPs to block the image sharing site imgur. A Vodafone representative informed us that the order was for blocking one imgur URL, and the company blocked the entire domain by mistake. That has now been corrected, and only one URL has been blocked. Right now there is absolutely no transparency from the DoT on how websites can be blocked and courts frequently issue John Doe orders to block file sharing websites. For example, in July 2014 the Delhi High Court issued a John Doe order to block 472 sites, including Google Docs, after a complaint by Multi Screen Media, the Sony owned media company that broadcast the FIFA World Cup live in India. Yash Raj Films also got a John Doe order to block sites in 2013 when Dhoom 3 was released. It also worth noting that Vimeo and Dailymotion were blocked following a similar order from the Madras High Court.

Necessary requirements for blocking

Ideally, blocking should be an exception, and not the norm that it has become. Even if blocks are instituted, here’s how it should be done.

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Visitors to a blocked website should be informed about:

1. The fact that the website has been blocked: There should be a notice indicating that the website has been blocked. This till ensure that visitors don’t assume that there is a problem with their Internet connection (ISP), with the websites servers or  the DNS.

2. Who has asked for the site to be blocked: This ensures that the identity of someone who has asked for a block is public. This ensures accountability and prevents frivolous complaints, since the individual or company filing the complaint will do so in a responsible manner.

3. Who has issued an order for the site to be blocked: This ensures that the adjudicatory body, whether the Department of Telecom or a court is identified as the entity that has issued the order for blocking. This ensures transparency and enforces accountability.

4. Why the website has been blocked: If my access to a page has been blocked, don’t I deserve to know why? Orders should be public, so that the department, person or a court is forced to explain why something has been blocked. Freedom of expression isn’t just the right to express yourself, but also the right to receive that expression.

5. How a block can be removed: There should be recourse established. If a page has been blocked, as the owner of the site, I should have details of whom to contact, and the process for blocks being removed. At present, that is not the case, and sites like Mobango were blocked in India for months, without knowing why or what they could to do to get blocks removed.

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6. A link with a public listing of blocks: This will allow an individual to ensure that the block is legitimate, if the government maintains a public listing of blocking orders. This ensures that telecom operators don’t block pages on their own, without orders from the government or courts.


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