After the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) blocked access to the satirical website www.dowrycalculator.com last week, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has now filed a Right to Information application (read a copy here) seeking to know why the website was blocked, says a report on its website. It has also asked the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) to publicly disclose all website blocking orders in the interest of free speech (read a copy of its representation to MEITY here).
IFF said it was tipped off about the block last week by Twitter user Rohit Verma (@rhnvrm) and upon monitoring this thread, found that the block has been inconsistently applied across ISPs. While Reliance Jio blocked the website, it is still available through Airtel and Vodafone. Also, IFF noted, there was no specific reason given for blocking the website, only the standard notice: “The URL has been blocked pursuant to direction of the Department of Telecom. Please contact administrator for more information.” IFF wrote that the content on Dowry Calculator made it “abundantly clear” that it was meant as satire, and that “this kind of inconsistency and opacity has now become characteristic of India’s website blocking regime”. IFF said that as part of its relaunch of Save the Internet, it has compiled a large, crowd-sourced database of website blocking and will use this data for future advocacy. It also said that is had made a formal representation to the DoT to investigate these crowd-sourced reports.
The report also noted that Dowry Calculator had been the subject of a similar controversy last May, when Jyotiraditya Scindia urged the Ministry of Woman and Child Development and the Prime Minister’s Office to take action against it. Maneka Gandhi in turn asked MEITY to block the website. “Even upon learning that it was a satirical website intended to mock men who demand dowry, Jyotiraditya Scindia stuck to his stance. He argued that people might not realise it was satire and such serious problems should not be made the subject of a joke,” IFF wrote.
Website blocking under the law
In India, website blocking is governed by Section 69A of the IT Act and IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009. It allows the central government to block websites for, among other things, “preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence”, which IFF said was presumably the ground that the DoT relied on in this case. IFF said the idea that Dowry Calculator incites men to demand dowry was “preposterous” but noted that ISPs were likely to comply with the block as failing to do so could be punished with up to seven years in jail. In addition to Section 69A, there are Blocking Rules that prescribe the procedure for blocking websites, including establishing a committee to examine such requests.
In 2012 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Section 69A and the Blocking Rules, and directed the committee to provide in writing its reasons for blocking a website. However, IFF noted, Rule 16 states that “Strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the requests and complaints received and actions taken thereof.” This confidentiality clause means that only intermediaries such as ISPs have knowledge of blocking orders. It also means that RTI applications seeking information are either denied or provide woefully incomplete information, which makes it practically impossible to file writ petitions to challenge the unjustified blocking of websites. IFF’s representation to MEITY seeks the removal of this clause.