By Gurshabad Grover and Torsha Sarkar
Last year, several Jio users from different states reported that sites like Indian Kanoon, Reddit and Telegram were inaccessible through their connections. While attempting to access the website, the users were presented with a notice that the websites were blocked on orders from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).
When contacted by the founder of Indian Kanoon, Reliance Jio stated that the website had been blocked on orders of the government and that the order had been rescinded the same evening. However, in response to a Right to Information (RTI) request, the DoT said they had no information about orders relating to the blocking of Indian Kanoon.
Alternatively, consider that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed concern last year that the Indian government was forcing Twitter to suspend accounts or remove content relating to Kashmir. They reported that over the last two years, the Indian government suppressed a substantial amount of information coming from the area, and prevented Indians from accessing more than five thousand tweets.
Arbitrary powers under the IT Act
These instances are symptomatic of a larger problem of opaque and arbitrary content takedown in India, enabled by the legal framework under the Information Technology (IT) Act. The Government derives its powers to order intermediaries (entities storing or transmitting information on behalf of others, a definition which includes internet service providers and social media platforms alike) to block online resources through section 69A of the IT Act and the rules [“the blocking rules”] notified thereunder.
Apart from this, section 79 of the IT Act and its allied rules also prescribe a procedure for content removal. Conversations with one popular intermediary revealed that the government usually prefers to use its powers under section 69A, possibly because of the opaque nature of the procedure that we highlight below.
Under section 69A, a content removal request can be sent by authorised personnel in the Central Government, not below the rank of a Joint Secretary. The grounds for issuance of blocking orders under section 69A are: “the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to the above.”
Specifically, the blocking rules envisage the process of blocking to be largely executive-driven and require strict confidentiality to be maintained around the issuance of blocking orders. This shrouds content takedown orders in a cloak of secrecy and makes it impossible for users and content creators to ascertain the legitimacy or legality of the government action in any instance of blocking.
The issue of secret blocking
The Supreme Court had been called to determine the constitutional validity of section 69A and the allied rules in Shreya Singhal v Union of India. The petitioners had contended that as per the procedure laid down by these rules, there was no guarantee of pre-decisional hearing afforded to the originator of the information.
Additionally, the petitioners pointed out that the safeguards built into section 95 and 96 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which allow state governments to ban publications and persons to initiate legal challenges to those actions respectively, were absent from the blocking procedures. Lastly, the petitioners assailed rule 16 of the blocking rules, which mandated confidentiality of blocking procedures, on the grounds that it was affecting their fundamental rights.
The Court, however, found little merit in these arguments. Specifically, the Court found that section 69A was narrowly drawn and had sufficient procedural safeguards, which included the grounds of issuance of a blocking order being specifically drawn, and mandating that the reasons of the website blocking be in writing, thus making it amenable to judicial review.
Further, the Court also found that the provision of setting up of a review committee saved the law from being constitutional infirmity. In the Court’s opinion, the mere absence of additional safeguards, like the ones built into the CrPC, did not mean that the law was unconstitutional.
But do the ground realities align with the Court’s envisaged implementation of these principles? Apar Gupta, a counsel for the petitioners, pointed out that there was no recorded instance of pre-decisional hearing being granted to show that this safeguard contained in the rules was actually being implemented.
However, Gautam Bhatia read Shreya Singhal to make an important advance: that the right of hearing be mandatorily extended to the ‘originator’, i.e. the content creator. Additionally, Bhatia also noted that the Court, while upholding the constitutionality of the procedure under section 69A, held that the “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.”
There are two important takeaways from this. Firstly, he argued that the broad contours of the judgment invoke an established constitutional doctrine — that the fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) does not merely include the right of expression, but also the right of access to information.
Accordingly, the right of challenging a blocking order was not only vested in the originator or the concerned intermediary but may rest with the general public as well. And secondly, by the doctrine of necessary implication, it followed that for the general public to challenge any blocking order under Article 226, the blocking orders must be made public.
While Bhatia concedes that public availability of blocking orders may be an over-optimistic reading of the judgment, recent events suggest that even the commonly-expected result, i.e. that the content creators having the right to a hearing, has not been implemented by the Government.
Consider the blocking of the satirical website DowryCalculator.com in September 2019 on orders from the government. The website displayed a calculator that suggests a ‘dowry’ depending on the salary and education of a prospective groom: even if someone misses the satire, the contents of the websitew are not immediately relatable to any grounds of removal listed under section 69A of the IT Act.
Tanul Thakur, the creator of the website, was not granted a hearing despite the fact that he had publicly claimed the ownership of the website at various times and that the website had been covered widely by the press. The information associated with the domain name also publicly lists Thakur’s name and contact information. Clearly, the government made no effort to contact Thakur when passing the order. Perhaps even more worryingly, when he tried to access a copy of the blocking order by filing an RTI, the MeitY cited the confidentiality rule to deny him the information.
This incident documents a fundamental problem plaguing the rules: the confidentiality clause is still being used to deny disclosure of key information on content takedown orders. The government has also used the provision to deny citizens a list of blocked websites, as responses to RTI requests have proven time and again.
Clearly, the Supreme Court’s rationale in considering Section 69A and the blocking rules as constitutional is not one that is implemented in reality. The confidentiality clause is preventing legal challenges to content blocking in totality: content creators are unable to access the orders, and hence are unable to understand the executive’s reasoning in ordering their content to be blocked from public access.
As we noted earlier, the grounds of issuing a blocking order under section 69A pertain to certain reasonable restrictions on expression permitted by Article 19(2), which are couched in broad terms. The government’s implementation of section 69A and the rules make it impossible for any judicial review or accountability on the conformity of blocking orders with the mentioned grounds under the rules, or any reasonable restriction at all.
The way forward
From the opacity of proceedings under the law to the lack of information regarding the same on the public domain, the Indian content takedown regime leaves a lot to be desired from both the government and intermediaries at play.
First, we believe the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India casts an obligation on the government to attempt to contact the content creator if they are passing a content takedown order to an intermediary. Second, even if the content creator is unavailable for a hearing at that instance, the confidentiality clause should not be used to prevent future disclosure of information to the content creator, so that affected citizens can access and challenge these orders.
While we wait for legal reform, intermediaries can also step up to ensure the rights of users online are upheld. On receiving formal orders, intermediaries should assess the legality of the received request. This should involve ensuring that only authorised agencies and personnel have sent the content removal orders, that the order specifically mentions what provision the government is exercising the power under, and that the content removal requests relate to the grounds of removal that are permissible under section 69A. For instance, intermediaries should refuse to entertain content removal requests under section 69A of the IT Act if they relate to obscenity, a ground not covered by the provision.
The representatives of the intermediary should also push for the committee to grant a hearing to the content creator. Here, the intermediary can act as a liaison between the uploader and the governmental authorities.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India offers a glimmer of hope for user rights online. While the case primarily challenged the orders imposing section 144 of the CrPC and a communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir, the final decision does affirm the fundamental principle that government-imposed restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly must be made available to the public and affected parties to enable challenges in a court of law.
The judiciary has yet another opportunity to consider the provision and the rules: late last year, Tanul Thakur approached the Delhi High Court to challenge the orders passed by the government to ISPs to block his website. One hopes that the future holds robust reforms to the content takedown regime.
We live in an era where the ebb and flow of societal discourse is increasingly channelled through intermediaries on the internet. In the absence of a mature, balanced and robust framework that enshrines the rule of law, we risk arbitrary modulation of the marketplace of ideas by the executive.
The authors are researchers at the Centre for Internet and Society.
This article was originally published on The Leaflet under the Creative Commons CC-BY license 4.0. It has been cross-posted with permission from the authors. Use and distribution of this work is allowed with due acknowledgement to The Leaflet.