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MTNL refuses to provide info about injected ads on its platform

MTNL CPM promotion

The Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) has refused to provide information on injected ads/service messages on web browsers on its broadband network to a user who sought this information through the Right to Information Act, 2005. (source: Github)

Sushubh Mittal wrote to Public Information Officer asking for this information pertaining to one year:
– a copy of the circular which said that the MTNL decided to start injecting browser popup ads on its service
– the technology used for this
– the provider of the technology and a copy of the agreement made with the said company to get this service
– name of the company operating the service on behalf of MTNL and the charges MTNL paid for it
– a copy of the agreement of revenue sharing if there was one such in place
– the number of ads delivered and revenue made through the platform and
– the details of user data and who has access to this user data

MTNL rejected all of these points on the basis of Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act which states that, “information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information”

MTNL ads were visible across the internet
We reported that MTNL had started inserting code into what users were browsing in June last year. Its ads were mainly ads for MTNL (some related to broadband VAS) based on the landline number if there was one, operational on both desktop and mobile in browsers and visible across websites like TechCrunch, Naukri.com, MediaNama, The Indian Express, Hindu Business Line and Flipkart. It wasn’t clear if MTNL was replacing regular ads to show its own or whether it had user consent and if websites could possibly have a clause which prevented code modification while it was live, so that the entity modifying it could be held responsible for tampering with it.

Airtel injected Javascript to keep track of user’s data usage
In June 2015 Bangalore-based Thejesh GN had noticed that Airtel was injecting Javascript into its user’s browsing session without seeking user consent. Apparently the code inserted a toolbar into the user’s browsing session. After he uploaded screenshots to Github, Thejesh received a cease & desist notice from an Israeli company called Flash Networks, that had written the piece of Javascript code. Airtel then said that it had nothing to do with the cease & desist notice received by Thejesh GN.

It didn’t help that the IT minister defended Airtel
When asked about the injections, Airtel said that “This is a standard solution deployed by telcos globally to help their customers keep track of their data usage in terms of megabytes used. It is therefore meant to improve customer experience and empower them to manage their usage”, echoed later by the IT and Communications Minister RS Prasad in a query on internet privacy in the Rajya Sabha. The Free Software Movement Karnataka said that it was concerned with the interception and modification of content by ISPs, which violated the principle of net neutrality. At the same time, Trak reported that not just Airtel, even Vodafone had been accused of doing a similar thing.

MediaNama’s take: MTNL’s refusal to provide the information under trade secrets and IP blatantly violates user privacy, and raising questions about monetary benefits it makes along with its partner company. This creates a dent in a publishers’ revenues, either by competing with those ads or replacing them, setting up precedent for more companies to do so. We could use a privacy bill. Meanwhile, in the UK, telco Three rolled out network level ad blocking in the UK and Italy. More on the dangers of tracking headers here.

(Unrelated: Facebook’s Instant Articles already prevents to a certain extent the sharing of news and other content through its newly open-to-all platform.)

Further reading:
– Privacy nightmare: Chennai & Hyderabad Municipal Corps list birth & death certificates online
– Aadhaar and the Waiver of the Right to Privacy
– MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar pushes for a Privacy Law, says IT Ministry’s response in Parliament was “misleading”
– Consumer contact details freely available on Bharatgas site; Privacy?
– TRAI releases email IDs of everyone who replied to net neutrality paper

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