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GoDaddy shut down exam info website Prepp.in for over a day due to complaint from Meghalaya Police

Prepp.in, a website targeted at government job aspirants, was shut down by GoDaddy for over a day in December due to a complaint by Meghalaya Police, MediaNama has learnt. Prepp.in said that the complaint was against a post that speculated on an exam schedule for Meghalaya Police recruitment. While admission schedules for such jobs are not set in stone, they tend to follow a pattern that websites like Prepp routinely speculate on, Prepp co-founder Sahil Chalana said. Interest in such content in India tends to be high as recruitment into government jobs are coveted and notified on short notice, and the number of applicants far exceeds the number of vacancies.

This time, though, Prepp was mistaken about any exams or appointments being notified soon, and Meghalaya Police — which was not hiring any new officers in that role in 2020 — did not take it lightly. Instead of reaching out to the website for a correction, the police directly shot off an email to GoDaddy, the domain registrar where Prepp.in is registered, and the registrar shut the website down for one and a half days.

No court or government order

The blocking was an unusual move, as it seemed that a website was taken down without a court order, or without an order from either the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology or the Department of Telecommunications. An email complaining about the article was sent by an Additional Director General of Police in Meghalaya, and GoDaddy promptly took down the website, Chalana told MediaNama. Chalana said Prepp had to apologize to the Meghalaya Police before the latter would approve of the website going back up.

Chalana did so, and the ADGP sent another email to the police, saying that if the article has indeed been taken down, then GoDaddy can go ahead and restore the website. MediaNama obtained a copy of the second email, but could not obtain a copy of the first. Meghalaya Police refused to share a copy of that letter with MediaNama, but said that they had only requested a takedown of the individual article. GoDaddy did not respond to MediaNama’s queries on the takedown.

Speculative information on recruitments are normally an administrative matter, but the Meghalaya Police has pursued the issue with the mechanisms it has in place for fighting fake news and misinformation. In May, it published a notice on its website branding as “FAKE NEWS” a post by ExamsDaily.in which stated falsely that Meghalaya Police recruitment exams would be held on that month.

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How often does this happen?

This incident raises questions on the frequency of such incidents, especially for smaller websites. While GoDaddy as the domain registrar is empowered to yank access to a website if required, the registry is as well. Last July, LetIndiaBreathe.in and FridaysForFuture.in, both websites owned by Fridays for Future India, the Indian chapter of an environmental advocacy group founded by Greta Thunberg, was reportedly blocked because the National Internet Exchange of India appeared to have received a complaint from Delhi Police that they were mobilizing people to overwhelming the email inbox of a cabinet minister with template messages against the Environmental Impact Assessment notification 2020.

But even in that case, NIXI’s then-CEO was quoted as saying that he had received a government order. In Prepp.in’s case, though, it appears that the Meghalaya Police has acted to prevent misinformation with regard to a post concerning the Meghalaya Police itself, potentially raising concern of censorship stemming from a conflict of interest. When asked how often they send such notices, Meghalaya Police told MediaNama, “Cannot be shared.”

Queries to GoDaddy and Meghalaya Police

MediaNama did not receive an answer to our queries to GoDaddy, which were as follows:

i) Was GoDaddy legally obligated to comply with the request to block prepp.in? If not, why did it do so? Why was the website censored by GoDaddy in the absence of a court order?
ii) Is it the policy of GoDaddy to comply with all takedown requests from Indian law enforcement, regardless of the merits of such requests?
iii) If the merits of requests are considered, why did GoDaddy consider this particular complaint (sent by Meghalaya Police to LEO@godaddy.com on December 4, 2020) considered meritworthy?
iv) What law enforcement authorities in India does GoDaddy comply with immediately with regard to takedowns of websites? What ranks are such authorities required to hold?
v) Who in GoDaddy was responsible for the decision to comply with the December 4 request by Meghalaya police? Who is empowered to consider such complaints?
vi) How many such police-led website takedowns has GoDaddy participated in since the company started doing business in India?
vii) Does GoDaddy have such a low bar for website takedowns in other parts of the world? If so, which countries’ law enforcement agencies have such a degree of power to request immediate takedowns?

MediaNama also sent the following queries to the office of the ADGP of Meghalaya Police, and received the following responses from the Special Superintendent of Police, CID, Meghalaya, Shillong:

i) What was the nature of the request sent to GoDaddy on December 4 with regard to prepp.in? Was a takedown requested for the whole domain, or just for the single post that was cited by Meghalaya Police? Do you believe the request was proportionate?

Answer by Meghalaya Police: The request was sent to Godaddy.com u/s 79 of the Information Technology Act. The take down request was to remove only the particular post (content).

ii) The nature of the impugned post appears to be speculating that the notification for 2021 admissions into Meghalaya Police would be released in that month. Why was that speculation treated as misinformation that warrants a notice to the website’s registrar?

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Answer by Meghalaya Police: No comments.

iii) How many such letters have been sent by Meghalaya Police to GoDaddy and other domain registrars? (Not including takedown notices sent to individual social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube.)

Answer by Meghalaya Police: Cannot be shared.

iv) What kind of entities are approached for online content takedowns directly aside from domain registrars?

Answer by Meghalaya Police: All Intermediaries.

Update (January 16): Story updated with comments from Special Superintendent of Police, CID, Meghalaya, Shillong.

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