DoT Blocks Domain Sites — But Reasons and Authority Unclear
Earlier this year, ISPs such as Airtel and MTNL blocked a number of domain sites including BuyDomains, Fabulous Domains and Sedo.co.uk. Whereas the Indian Government and courts have previously issued orders blocking websites, these actions have generally been attributed to issues such as posting of inflammatory content or piracy of copyrighted material. However, the reasoning behind blocking domain marketplaces such as the above mentioned sites is not clear.
These websites offer users various tools to buy and sell domain names and simplify the purchasing process. Users on India Broad Band forum and websites like Medianama reported that these domain sites were not accessible and the following message was displayed instead — "This website/URL has been blocked until further notice either pursuant to Court orders or on the Directions issued by the Department of Telecommunications".
.In Registry’s Anti-Abuse Policy
If the issue at hand is one of abusive registrations, it would fall under the .IN Domain Anti-abuse Policy adopted by the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) and the .in registry. This policy states that NIXI will have the right to "deny, cancel, or transfer any registration or transaction, or place any domain name(s) on registry lock, hold, or similar status" if necessary. This raises a question as to why the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) would issue directions to block these domain marketplaces instead of cancelling their registration or placing it on hold under the policies adopted by NIXI.
A second, more important question would be whether the DoT has the power to block websites or take action under NIXI’s anti-abuse policy. NIXI and the .in registry both work under the aegis of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology. In addition, the Information Technology Act, 2000 ("the IT Act") is the only legislation that provides the authority to block a website and this authority is bestowed upon the Secretary, Department of Information Technology.
Information Technology Act
Section 69-A of the IT Act authorizes the central government to issue directions/orders to block public access to any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource i.e., block websites. Such orders can be issued if the authorized officer finds that it is necessary to do so in the India’s sovereign and national interests or in the interest of public order. These interests include defence, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign neighbours and preventing incitement to the commission of an offence.
The procedures and safeguards that are to be followed before issuing an order to block a website are detailed in the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for blocking for access of information by public) Rules, 2009 ("the rules"). The rules provide that upon receiving a complaint, the concerned organization for the blocking of access to information shall examine the complaint to ensure that there is a need to take action under the reasons mentioned above. If such action is found necessary, a request if forwarded and a committee established as per the rules reviews any requests made to block access to any information. During this review, there is also provision for a notice and reply procedure. This allows for the person controlling the online publication of such information to appear before the committee and respond to the request or make any clarifications regarding the information.
The recommendations of the committee are then sent to the Secretary of the Department of Information Technology who further directs an agency of the government or the intermediary to block the relevant content/website. The rules also provide procedures for blocking access in case of an emergency and in cases where court orders directing the blocking of information have been issued.
Whereas the ideas of sovereign interest and public order are admittedly very broad, there is no clear explanation as to what actions of domain sites/marketplaces such as BuyDomain and sedo.co.uk would be considered to impinge upon either. Neither is there any information available regarding why the DoT considers this to be the case.