The government of India, via the Ministry of Communications, in a letter dated 18th July 2018, sought inputs from telecom operators and ISPs with Gateways, requesting to “explore various possible options and confirm how the Instagram/Facebook/WhatsApp/Telegram and other such mobile apps can be blocked on internet.”

In the letter, of which MediaNama has a copy, the Ministry said that “Issues have been raised by MeitY and LEAs for blocking of certain mobile apps like Instagram/Facebook/WhatsApp/Telegram etc. This issue was also raised during the meeting on 04.07.2018 wherein technical inputs were sought from TSPs/ISPs to explore the possibility of blocking certain mobile applications”.

On August 1st 2018, Industry association ASSOCHAM, representing the telecom operators, sent a detailed response to the government of India, citing the letter, and saying that the move would “greatly harm India’s reputation as a growing hub of innovation in technology”, is “excessive” and “unnecessary”, and for realising the vision of Digital India, we need a “clear and predictable legal framework grounded on fairness, proportionality and the rule of law.”

A few points to note:

  1. Government of India has blocked social media apps before: On the 17th of 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 then 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.

This comes at a time when Member of Parliament Husain Dalwai in the Rajya Sabha is moving a motion opposing the rules created by the Government of India to shut down the Internet. Details of that here.

The Minister for IT Ravi Shankar Prasad has publicly outlined the following measures planned for attributing accountability to platforms:

  1. Intermediaries should have a physical presence in India
  2. Ensure that malicious messages can be traced to their source of origin
  3. Locate a grievance officer in India
  4. Enable technological measures to ensure that the platforms “do not become vehicles for promoting hatred, terrorism, money laundering, mob violence and rumour mongering”, and enable filtration for verified fake news, grievance redressal mechanisms, and verify news on the platform

Much more in our report here. Note that the Minister’s speech in Parliament was after this letter was sent to ISPs

ASSOCHAM’s response to the Ministry of Communications letter

ASSOCHAM says in its response, of which we have a copy, that:

  1. The current framework under the IT Act and Telegraph Act have no effective safeguards, and no recourse mechanism. “The result is that blocking orders are often overboard, have unintended consequences such as blanked outages and end up causing serious harm to economic and consumer interests.” It says that existing mechanisms need to be reviewed and reformed to make them more responsible and accountable.MediaNama’s comment: Remember that Section 69 of the IT Act allows for secret government blocking, with no transparency related to the orders. It was, unfortunately, upheld by the Supreme Court of India, as a part of the Shreya Singhal judgment, which declared 66A unconstitutional.
  2. Existing content moderation measures are disproportionate given that platforms have internal mechanisms to address content that is unlawful, illegal or falls afoul of community standards.
  3. Blocks can be circumvented by VPNs
  4. Economic harms of blocking: an ICRIER study says that apps contributed $20 billion USD in 2015–16 to India’s GDP.
  5. Measures should be targeted: that broad blocking measures will adversely impact online usage of innocent consumers. Regulatory measures “need to be targeted, narrowly applied and necessary. Broad blocking measures do not fulfil these requirements.”