Centre for Internet & Society

The Delhi government is trying to block taxi hailing apps like Uber and Ola Cabs, but is it really possible?

The article by Siladitya Ray published in the Hindustan Times on June 4, 2015 quotes Sunil Abraham.

Taxi aggregators are in the firing line over passenger safety again after a 21-year-old Delhi woman alleged she was molested by a driver in an Uber cab near Gurgaon on Saturday morning.

The allegation came just six months after a 25-year-old financial analyst was allegedly raped in an Uber cab in Delhi, over which the victim took the cab aggregator's parent company to court in the US.

Following an order from the Delhi government, the Department of Telecommunication had issued an order to Internet Service Providers to block the websites and apps of taxi hailing aggregators like Uber, TaxiForSure and Ola Cabs.

But Internet Service Providers (ISP) have apparently expressed inability to block Uber, Ola as the web services feature strong end-to-end encryption.

How ISPs block sites

Often when an ISP blocks a website it severs your connection with the domain name.  For example if ISPs want to block Google they simply block your access to www.google.com (i.e. Google's domain name), pretty simple. But if you are using an app like Google Now there is no domain name involved here the app talks directly to the server through using some form of encryption.

If we were to use an analogy, think of the ISP as a bridge that connects you to the web. The sites can be thought of as cars and their domain names as license plates.  If the ISP wants to block a car with a certain license plate from going through it can do so with ease. But if a car's number plates are obscured (encryption) then ISP cannot block the car from passing through.

Uber and Ola

Most users book cabs from Ola or Uber using the company's apps, which use strong encryption effectively making their data virtually undetectable to ISPs.

"It's possible to block apps but it's much more difficult than before. Earlier you had to deal with a finite set of IP addresses but now these services are hosted on multiple cloud servers," said Sunil Abraham, the executive director of Bangalore based research organisation, the Centre for Internet and Society. "The ISPs themselves don't want to go through the pain of blocking these apps so they are asking the government to give them a solution," he added.

The government and the Department of Telecommunication are fighting near improbable odds in their endeavor to block these services on the web.