Centre for Internet & Society

An entire government department is on the job, but can it really take down ‘offending’ online content?

The article by Sibi Arasu was published in the Hindu Businessline on April 3, 2015. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.

The Department of Electronics and Information Technology’s (Deity) offices are as layered as its official website. From inside ‘Electronics Niketan’ at the Central Government Offices (CGO) complex in south Delhi, Deity’s army of director-generals, joint secretaries, department heads, scientists, clerks and staff of various grades and ranks keep an eye on how the country engages with the world wide web.

One set of cubicles is dedicated to the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT), the nodal agency meant to combat hacking, phishing and generally fortify the internet in India. This includes the task of blocking and unblocking websites. A rather complicated job in a country where, according to one senior government official, “it’s technically infeasible to completely block content. If it’s at the gateway level, then we can filter it out. But for videos and other similar content, it is just not possible to completely block them.”

No bandwidth

Be it the AIB roasts that were taken down from YouTube or the controversial documentary India’s Daughter, which was blocked within eight hours of going online, the CERT and other allied departments have been kept busy over the past few months.

In a classic example of how blocking can go wrong, more than 36 websites were taken down in December last year to “prevent the spread of ISIS propaganda” only to be unblocked within weeks. Like elsewhere in the world, the attempt to “protect” citizens had unwittingly ended up hurting legitimate websites, including video sharing sites vimeo.com, dailymotion.com and the reference site archive.org. It was embarrassingly similar to the Chinese government’s actions in 2010 when it blocked all images of empty chairs, stools and tables as it attempted to staunch discussions about Liu Xiabo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner that year, who was missing from the awards ceremony as he was incarcerated in China.

Terming such government actions as dangerous and Orwellian, Apar Gupta, a cyber law specialist in Delhi who appeared for the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in the PIL against Section 66A of the IT Act, says, “Any piece of content is contained within several file formats and obscured through technical devices like encryption, making its complete removal and eradication impossible.”

Internet freedom campaigners have maintained that Section 66A, which prescribed “punishment for sending offensive messages through a communication service”, was created solely to muzzle dissent and differences of opinion.

Although Section 66A was recently struck down, the law authorising blocking of content — namely, Section 69A — remains intact. The Central Government can block content it believes threatens the security of the State; the sovereignty, integrity or defence of India; friendly relations with foreign States; public order; or incites committing a cognisable offence related to any of the above. The government must, however, adhere to a set of procedures and safeguards, known as Blocking Rules.

“Larger, overbroad technical blocks can impede the functioning of the internet,” says internet policy analyst Raman Chima. “When a large website ‘blacklist’ and internet filter was proposed for Australia in 2009-10, research established that it would likely result in double-digit reductions in the internet’s speed and efficiency in that country.”

The ‘Streisand effect’, named after the Hollywood actress, is another common consequence of blocking. As Chima says, “Specific bans tend to be counterproductive and, more often than not, result in more awareness and interest in the banned content.”

Political manoeuvres

‘Ethical hacktivist’ and Hackers Hat founder Satish Ashwin sees banning and blocking as purely vote bank politics.

“Technically anything can be blocked or banned and it’s not a big deal, but the sheer volume of data uploaded makes it next to impossible to monitor and censor,” he says.

To those heralding the striking down of 66A as a victory for free speech, Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bengaluru-based Centre for Internet and Society, points to the larger picture. “Nobody is really aware of the scale of censorship in India. Thousands of websites are blocked under Section 69A, mostly due to the maximalist enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). While 66A is gone, there are many other provisions within the IT Act that still regulate speech online. It is important to have quality laws drafted through an open, participatory process, where all stakeholders are consulted and responded to before bills are introduced in Parliament."