Over the past couple of days, some Airtel mobile Internet customers have found themselves being directed to a site with the address http://220.127.116.11/ while trying to browse websites. The URL hosts the admin page for Netsweeper cloud manager.
— Techno Gatsby (@coderzombie) April 13, 2016
Netsweeper Inc is a Canadian software company which is used by telecom operators and governments to censor citizens access to the Internet: quite simply, it is used to block websites. The software has been used by telecom operators and governments in Qatar, UAE and Yemen. Canada based Citizen Lab has details of how Netsweeper was used to block websites in Pakistan. In Yemen, as per an October 2015 report by Citizen Lab, it was used to “filter critical political content, independent media websites, and all websites belonging to the Israeli (.il) top-level domain”.
That is not to say that Netsweeper is being used by Airtel to filter access to content which hasn’t been legitimately banned in India. India does have a problem of too many bans: far too often, when a movie is released, film producers get “John Doe” orders from courts, which allow them to block access to any website. The Indian government has also been trigger-happy in the past, and blocks have ranged from blocking all blog domains (in 2006), to specific news particles (in 2012) and twitter accounts (in 2012), lots of porn sites (in 2015), to, more recently, shutting down Internet access in its entirety in certain areas, citing civil unrest (in 2015 and 2016)…and even to prevent cheating in exams (in 2016).
At the same time, there have been allegations of private censorship from telecom operators as well, though these claims have never been verified. In 2012, Anonymous India had allegedly hacked into Reliance Communications servers and found a list of sites that the mobile operators was (allegedly) blocking, including some blog entries critical of a company executive.
Questions for Airtel
In response, Airtel has sent us a boilerplate response which doesn’t answer most these questions:
“Airtel supports an open internet and does not block any content on its network. It is only in the case of government/court directives that specified sites are blocked.”
1. Why has Airtel deployed NetSweeper, and what does it use this system for?
2. Under what circumstances does Airtel filter content being accessed on the Internet?
3. Are there instances where Airtel privately filters access to content online?
4. Why are users being redirected to the Netsweeper page?
5. Does Airtel publish a list of pages or URL’s it is filtering? Would appreciate a link or a copy in case you have a transparency report.
Need for transparency
Neither the Indian government, nor the telecom operators, disclose any information regarding websites blocked in India. If you visit a blocked site, often there is no indication that they’ve been blocked by a court or a government order, nor is there information about how that block can be removed. Airtel can help provide transparency about blocks by disclosing:
– the number of block requests it receives from the government and the courts (separately),
– the number of block orders it has executed, and
– the number of URLs that have been blocked.
– At least in case of court orders, which aren’t confidential, it can also maintain a public list of sites that have been blocked.
Supreme Court of India had upheld Section 69A of the IT Act
It’s also worth pointing out that a part of the 66A judgment last year was also the ruling on secret blocking by the government, under Section 69A, the Supreme Court of India held that there were sufficient checks and balances to ensure that the government doesn’t abuse its right to censor online content, and that it is constitutionally valid. The Court said:
First and foremost, blocking can only be resorted to where the Central Government is satisfied that it is necessary so to do. Secondly, such necessity is relatable only to some of the subjects set out in Article 19(2). Thirdly, reasons have to be recorded in writing in such blocking order so that they may be assailed in a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution.
110. The Rules further provide for a hearing before the Committee set up – which Committee then looks into whether or not it is necessary to block such information. It is only when the Committee finds that there is such a necessity that a blocking order is made. It is also clear from an examination of Rule 8 that it is not merely the intermediary who may be heard. If the “person” i.e. the originator is identified he is also to be heard before a blocking order is passed. Above all, it is only after these procedural safeguards are met that blocking orders are made and in case there is a certified copy of a court order, only then can such blocking order also be made. It is only an intermediary who finally fails to comply with the directions issued who is punishable under sub-section (3) of Section 69A.