Centre for Internet & Society

This post was reviewed and edited by Isha Suri and Nishant Shankar.

In December 2023, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) issued instructions to internet service providers (ISPs) to maintain and share a list of “customer owned” IP addresses that host internet services through Indian ISPs so that they can be immediately traced in case “they are required to be blocked as per orders of [the court], etc”.

For the purposes of the notification, tracing customer-owned IP addresses implies identifying the network location of a subset of web services that possess their own IP addresses, as opposed to renting them from the ISP. These web services purchase IP Transit from Indian ISPs in order to connect their servers to the internet. In such cases, it is not immediately apparent which ISP routes to a particular IP address, requiring some amount of manual tracing to locate the host and immediately cut off access to the service. The order notes that “It has been observed that many times it is time consuming to trace location of such servers specially in case the IP address of servers is customer owned and not allocated by the Licensed Internet Service Provider”.

This indicates that, not only is the DoT blocking access to web services based on their IP addresses, but is doing so often enough for manual tracing of IP addresses to be a time consuming process for them.

While our legal framework allows courts and the government to issue content takedown orders, it is well documented that blocking web services based on their IP addresses is ineffectual and disruptive. An explainer on content blocking by the Internet Society notes, “Generally, IP blocking is a poor filtering technique that is not very effective, is difficult to maintain effectively, has a high level of unintended additional blockage, and is easily evaded by publishers who move content to new servers (with new IP addresses)”. The practice of virtual hosting is very common on the internet, which entails that a single web service can span multiple IP addresses and a single IP address can be shared by hundreds, or even thousands, of web services. Blocking access to a particular IP address can cause unrelated web services to fail in subtle and unpredictable ways, leading to collateral censorship. For example, a 2022 Austrian court order to block 11 IP addresses associated with 14 websites that engaged in copyright infringement rendered thousands of unrelated websites inaccessible.

The unintended effects of IP blocking have also been observed in practice in India. In 2021, US-based OneSignal Inc. approached the Delhi High Court challenging the blockage of one of its IP addresses by ISPs in India. With OneSignal being an online marketing company, there did not appear to be any legitimate reason for it to be blocked. In response to the petition the Government said that they had already issued unblocking orders for the IP address. There have also been numerous reports by internet users of inexplicable blocking of innocuous websites hosted on content delivery networks (which are known to often share IP addresses between customers).

We urge the ISPs, government departments and courts issuing and implementing website blocking orders to refrain from utilising overly broad censorship mechanisms like IP blocking which can lead to failure of unrelated services on the internet.


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