The Indian government is looking to leverage its years-long effort to boost Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) to be able to block websites and apps more effectively, Business Standard reports. The report quotes a senior Department of Telecommunications official as saying, “We have been told that with this, it will be possible to block services more precisely. We are pushing stakeholders to upgrade their networks, devices, and apps to be IPv6-ready.”

This way, the government reasons that it won’t have to shut down the internet every time there is social unrest. The Home Ministry recently issued a similar advisory — which did not mention IPv6 — asking ISPs whether blocking individual apps would be possible.

IPv6 is a successor of IPv4, which is the most widely used internet protocol standard today. IPv4 sets the rules for IP addresses, but comes with a glaring limitation of supporting only 4.1 billion addresses. That doesn’t even cover the world’s population. IPv6, which has much longer alphanumeric addresses, has more room for addresses than there are atoms on earth.

Blocking websites also becomes much easier for ISPs, since apps and websites’ hosting providers aren’t rapidly changing IP addresses to deal with the scarcity of address combinations. Since every device will have a unique address, blocking services will become a much easier technical task for ISPs.

A few points to note:

  1. Government of India has blocked social media apps before: On the 17 April 2017, the Indian government had banned 22 social media apps in Jammu & Kashmir, including Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, YouTube (upload), Vine, Google+, QQ, WeChat, Qzone, Tumblr, Skype, Viber, Line, Snapchat, Pinterest, Telegram, Reddit, Snapfish, Xanga, Buzznet, Flickr and Baidu. That list was apparently picked up from a random webpage on the Internet listing social media apps. More details here.
  2. UN Human Rights experts were critical of the Government of India’s approach to block specific apps: Two United Nations human rights experts had called on India to restore internet and social media networks in Jammu and Kashmir. They had said then: “The scope of these restrictions has a significantly disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir, undermining the Government’s stated aim of preventing dissemination of information that could lead to violence”, and that “The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment, and fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression.” More details here.

MediaNama’s take

This is not the first time that the government has sought to deploy technology-led solutions to solve what is essentially a human problem. Just as shutting the entire internet down due to social unrest is problematic, so is censoring apps and websites. At its core, situations that lead the government to shut the internet down are policing and administration failures. All the way into 2018, police departments typically have little to no training in arresting the spread of misinformation and countering it (with a few notable exceptions). They are typically left to fend for themselves. If the government spent more time and energy investigating the origins of fake news and rumours, perhaps those who spread it would not do so with the impunity they currently enjoy. And we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

Of course, this criticism assumes an abundance of good intent on the government’s side. The processes that end up being created as a result of these discussions and concerns may not always be executed in good faith. The government’s power-at-will to cripple critical communications networks like social media and messaging apps is an alarming breach of human rights. What is worrying is that the government is even moving in this direction, even if it is less harmful than the more extreme option of a total shutdown. Law and order problems that happen so frequently and so predictably need to have planned and coordinated responses that don’t rely on overzealous state censorship.

IPv6 deployment in India

The government push for IPv6 deployment in India started eight years ago under the UPA government, with a roadmap to deploy it throughout the country. IPv6 is mentioned in both the National Telecom Policy, 2012 and in the DoT’s draft National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. But its deployment has been slow, considering that IPv6 is not a backward-compatible standard, and only works with the entire Internet if used in conjunction with IPv4. Telcos have been especially slow in transforming, considering that they have a large volume of legacy technology, and lots of client devices don’t support IPv6. Because of this, IPv4 has persisted as the primary standard.

As recently as 2017, India’s IPv6 penetration crossed just 20%, which was only because of Reliance Jio which was built from the ground-up with IPv6 support. In 2016, the government said that all government organizations must support IPv6 by the end of 2017. From the beginning of 2017, broadband services and LTE connections would have to roll out with IPv6 support. Practically all phones with internet access have been required to support IPv6 since 2014, per the DoT’s roadmap.