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Over 55,000 Websites Blocked Since January 2015, Most to 'Protect Indian State': Report

There needs to be more transparency on the blocking mechanism of websites under Section 69A, the report by SFLC.in says.

New Delhi: One of the reasons most often cited for the blocking of websites is the ‘protection of the Indian state,’ a recently released report notes. The report found that between January 2015 and June 2022, roughly 55,580 websites, YouTube channels, URLs, applications, etc. have been blocked.

Finding 404: A Report on Website Blocking in India‘ was released by the legal services organisation SFLC.in, which aims to protect freedom in the digital world.

Internet blocking occurs when the content of a website or application falls under the exceptions in Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India and Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. It is also done if the content violates the Copyright Act, 1957. 

The report has made observations with regard to Internet blocking in India, elaborated on below:

  1. The highest proportion of websites has been blocked under Section 69A of the IT Act (47.5% of websites blocked from 2015 to September 2022).
  2. A bulk of the reasons cited for blocking those websites have been attributed to protecting the Indian state. This includes the integrity and sovereignty of India, defence matters, foreign relations, public order, and incitement. Some websites have explicitly been linked with organisations banned by the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA).
  3. Propaganda and the spread of disinformation are also common reasons for website blocking.
  4. Copyright infringement, obscenity, defamation, public disorder, law and order, and contempt of court have also led to website blocking. 
  5. Reasons for blocking mobile applications also encompass the aforementioned, along with stating that these applications stole users’ data and transmit it to servers outside India illegally. 

Thus, it seems that a particular section of Indian law plays a pivotal role in regulating internet operations.

Certain bodies (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB)) making decisions involving Section 69A do not specify reasons, while others do, which is perhaps why there is an array of them given, as found in the data studied. 

On this, the report has made a list of recommendations, which are as follows:

1. There needs to be more transparency on the blocking mechanism of websites under Section 69A. The current form has been found by the report, to be lacking checks and balances, largely owing to the confidentiality clause (Rule 16, IT Rules), which results in the non-publication of orders. This stands at odds with the fundamental freedom of speech and expression of citizens.

2. The Review Committee needs more diverse representation. The current committee mostly consists of members of the executive. This could potentially allow for the permeation of bias into the decision-making in favour of the executive. This is made especially important as the committee also reviews decisions under the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951 and Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. 

3. The government should bring in a stricter standard for blocking entire websites, accounts, or channels. Currently, the laws do not preclude the blocking of an entire platform falling under the three over a particular post. 

The report claims that these recommendations have been made to improve on transparency of the process involved in website blocking, to mitigate the role of biases in deciding whether to block a website, and to make sure that website blocking is used only in specific cases where it is required. 

It concludes with stating that “Internet is merely 25 years old and the regulatory issues facing internet are emerging just now and at a fast pace. It is foremost to keep democratic principles at the heart of any regulation that seeks to control noxious use of it.”.