The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) issued orders to block twenty-two YouTube-based news channels, three Twitter accounts, one Facebook account, and one news website under the emergency powers granted by the Information Technology (IT) Rules, 2021, the ministry said in a press release issued on April 5.
The blocked YouTube channels had a cumulative viewership of over 2.6 billion views (260 crores) and were used to spread fake news and coordinated disinformation on subjects sensitive from the perspective of national security, India’s foreign relations, and public order, MIB said.
This is the fourth instance of MIB invoking powers under IT Rules to block content and the first time that Indian accounts have been targetted. With this action, since December 2021, MIB has blocked 78 YouTube-based news channels and several other social media accounts.
“The Government of India remains committed towards ensuring an authentic, trustworthy, and safe online news media environment, and thwart any attempts at undermining India’s sovereignty and integrity, national security, foreign relations, and public order.” – MIB
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What content was shared by the blocked accounts?
Multiple YouTube channels were used to post fake news on various subjects such as the Indian Armed Forces, Jammu and Kashmir, and the ongoing situation in Ukraine, which was aimed at jeopardizing India’s foreign relations with other countries, the press release stated.
The blocked accounts also posted certain “anti-India content” posted in a coordinated manner from Pakistan, the release added.
What was the modus operandi of the blocked accounts?
- Imitating authentic news channels: MIB found that many of the blocked YouTube channels were using templates and logos of well-known TV news channels, including images of their news anchors, to mislead the viewers to believe that the news was authentic.
- Frequently altered content: MIB also found that these channels were using false titles and thumbnails, which were frequently altered to increase the virality of content on social media.
Which accounts have been blocked?
India-based YouTube channels
- ARP News
- AOP News
- LDC News
- SS ZONE Hindi
- Smart News
- Online Khabar
- DP news
- PKB News
- Borana News
- Sarkari News Update
- Bharat Mausam
- RJ ZONE 6
- Exam Report
- Digi Gurukul
Pakistan-based YouTube channels
- Ghulam NabiMadni
- HAQEEQAT TV
- HAQEEQAT TV 2.0
Other Pakistan-based content
- Ghulam NabiMadni
- Haqeeqat TV
- Dunya Mere Aagy
MIB wants platforms to be more proactive in combating fake news
In a meeting held on January 31, officials from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) strongly criticised Google, Twitter, and Facebook for not doing enough to remove fake news on their platforms, forcing the government to issue content takedown orders.
The government officials urged the platforms to do more on their own to combat misinformation because content takedown orders draw international criticism for suppressing free expression, damaging the public image of the government. When a Google official suggested that government can keep takedown requests confidential to avoid negative publicity, the government officials rejected the suggestion saying that such takedowns publicise how tech companies aren’t doing enough to tackle fake news on their own.
What happened in the previous instances?
- December 2021: MIB blocked 20 YouTube channels and two news websites saying that these channels and websites formed a “coordinated disinformation network operating from Pakistan” which was “spreading fake news about various sensitive subjects related to India.”
- January 2022: MIB blocked 35 YouTube news channels, two news websites, Twitter accounts, Instagram accounts and one Facebook account, all of which were allegedly part of a “coordinated disinformation campaign from Pakistan.”
- February 2022: MIB blocked apps, websites, and social media accounts including the YouTube channel of foreign-based Punjab Politics TV having close links with Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), an organization that has been declared unlawful under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967
What do the IT Rules say?
- An authorised officer, appointed by the MIB, can submit a recommendation to the MIB Secretary for the immediate blocking of certain content in cases of public emergency under Rule 16 of the IT Rules. The rule states that the grounds for such blocking are laid in Section 69 of the IT Act, which lays out the interest of the sovereignty, defence, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above, or investigation of any offence as grounds.
- If the MIB Secretary is satisfied with the necessity of such blocking, they can issue a direction to the publishers or an intermediary as an interim measure, recording the reasons for it in writing.
- Within 48 hours, the issue will be bought for consideration and recommendation before the IDC whose decision will prevail. In case the IDC decides against the blocking, the MIB Secretary will revoke their order.
- A Review Committee should meet at least once every two months and record its findings on whether the directions of blocking of content or information issued under these rules are in accordance with the provisions of sub-section (1) of section 69A of the Act and if it is of the opinion that the directions are not in accordance with the said provisions, it may set aside the directions and issue an order for unblocking of such content.
MediaNama’s Take: Is the government really open about content takedowns?
The press release by MIB might suggest that the government is transparent about the content takedown orders it issues under Section 69A, but don’t be fooled by these releases.
In most cases, the government declines to reveal the reasoning behind content takedown orders. This is contradictory to the government’s stance in the January 31 meeting where it said it wants to keep content takedowns public. From what it looks like, the government is happy to be transparent when the content takedown doesn’t portray the government in bad light such as when it is taking action against security concerns posed by Chinese apps or misinformation spread by Pakistani operatives. But when it comes to takedowns of content that’s critical of the government or content that is politically or religiously sensitive, the government conveniently hides behind the confidentiality offered by Section 69A of the IT Act 2000.
There are many more instances where the government has declined to reveal any information on takedown orders. For example, earlier in 2021, Twitter was ordered to block access to several prominent Indian accounts including multiple anti-establishment commentators and organisations representing protesting farmers. But when asked to disclose details of the order, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology refused, stating the blocking orders under 69A are subject to “strict confidentiality.” Then in April 2021, Twitter complied with government requests to censor 52 tweets that mostly criticised India’s handling of the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, and once again, there was no explanation from the government for the same. In October last year, around 24 tweets and accounts that put up pro-secessionist content pertaining to Kashmir and Punjab were withheld in India by Twitter based on government orders, but no official disclosure was made by the government.
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- I&B Ministry Uses Emergency Provision Of IT Rules To Block Online Content For The First Time
- Summary: Information Technology Rules 2021 and Digital News publishing
- IT Rules FAQs: What are the issues that MIB needs to address?
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