Internet censorship in India

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Internet censorship in India is selectively practiced by both federal and state governments. While there is no sustained government policy or strategy to block access to Internet content on a large scale, measures for removing content that is obscene or otherwise objectionable, or that endangers public order or national security have become more common in recent years. However, websites blocked either by the government or Internet service providers can often be accessed through proxy servers (see Internet censorship circumvention).

Overview[edit]

OpenNet Initiative report[edit]

The OpenNet Initiative classified India as engaged in "selective" Internet filtering in the political, conflict/security, social, and Internet tools areas in 2011.[1][2] ONI describes India as:

A stable democracy with a strong tradition of press freedom, [that] nevertheless continues its regime of Internet filtering. However, India's selective censorship of blogs and other content, often under the guise of security, has also been met with significant opposition.
Indian ISPs continue to selectively filter Web sites identified by authorities. However, government attempts at filtering have not been entirely effective because blocked content has quickly migrated to other Web sites and users have found ways to circumvent filtering. The government has also been criticised for a poor understanding of the technical feasibility of censorship and for haphazardly choosing which Web sites to block.

Reporters Without Borders "countries under surveillance"[edit]

In March 2012, Reporters Without Borders added India to its list of "countries under surveillance",[3] stating that:

Since the Mumbai bombings of 2008, the Indian authorities have stepped up Internet surveillance and pressure on technical service providers, while publicly rejecting accusations of censorship. The national security policy of the world's biggest democracy is undermining freedom of expression and the protection of Internet users' personal data.

Freedom House report[edit]

The India country report that is included in Freedom House's Freedom on the Net 2012 report, says:[4]

  • India's overall Internet Freedom Status is "Partly Free", unchanged from 2009.
  • India has a score of 39 on a scale from 0 (most free) to 100 (least free), which places India 20 out of the 47 countries worldwide that were included in the 2012 report. This is considered, by Freedom House, to be a "notable" decrease from the previous year's rank of 14 out of the 37 countries worldwide that were included in the 2011 report.
  • India ranks third out of the eleven countries in Asia included in the 2012 report.
  • Prior to 2008, censorship of Internet content by the Indian government was relatively rare and sporadic.
  • Following the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which killed 171 people, the Indian Parliament passed amendments to the Information Technology Act (ITA) that expanded the government's censorship and monitoring capabilities.
  • While there is no sustained government policy or strategy to block access to Internet content on a large scale, measures for removing certain content from the web, sometimes for fear they could incite violence, have become more common.
  • Pressure on private companies to remove information that is perceived to endanger public order or national security has increased since late 2009, with the implementation of the amended ITA. Companies are required to have designated employees to receive government blocking requests, and assigns up to seven years' imprisonment private service providers—including ISPs, search engines, and cybercafes—that do not comply with the government's blocking requests.
  • The government and non-state actors have intensified pressure on intermediaries, including social media applications, to remove upon request a wide range of content vaguely defined as "offensive" and potentially pre-screen user-generated content.
  • Internet users have sporadically faced prosecution for online postings, and private companies hosting the content are obliged by law to hand over user information to the authorities.
  • In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that both bloggers and moderators can face libel suits and even criminal prosecution for comments posted by other users on their websites.
  • Prior judicial approval for communications interception is not required and both central and state governments have the power to issue directives on interception, monitoring, and decryption. All licensed ISPs are obliged by law to sign an agreement that allows Indian government authorities to access user data.
  • In April 2011, the government instituted Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, which require intermediaries—including search engines and social-networking sites—to remove content within 36 hours if an individual complains that it is offensive. The list of potentially offensive content is both wide-ranging and vague. It includes information that is "disparaging," “harmful," “blasphemous," “pornographic," “encourages gambling," “infringes proprietary rights," or "threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order." Under the 2008 ITA, intermediaries in India are protected from prosecution for content posted by third parties, but according to the 2011 rules, they risk losing such immunity if they do not remove the offensive content within 36 hours of notification. Meanwhile, the rules do not provide an avenue for content producers to be informed of the removal or to contest the decision.

Background[edit]

In June 2000, the Indian Parliament created the Information Technology (IT) Act to provide a legal framework to regulate Internet use and commerce, including digital signatures, security, and hacking.[1] The act criminalises the publishing of obscene information electronically and grants police powers to search any premises without a warrant and arrest individuals in violation of the act. A 2008 amendment to the IT Act reinforced the government's power to block Internet sites and content and criminalised sending messages deemed inflammatory or offensive.[5]

Internet filtering can also be mandated through licensing requirements. For example, ISPs seeking licences to provide Internet services with the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) "shall block Internet sites and/or individual subscribers, as identified and directed by the Telecom Authority from time to time" in the interests of "national security".[6] Licence agreements also require ISPs to prevent the transmission of obscene or otherwise objectionable material.[7]

In 2001, the Bombay High Court appointed a committee to oversee issues relating to online pornography and Cybercrime.[8] The Court invited the petitioners, Jayesh Thakkar and Sunil Thacker, to make recommendations on cyber laws. The committee published a report which analyses the key issues and made recommendations regarding areas such as the licensing of cyber cafés, putative identity cards for cyber cafe visitors, that minors use computers in public spaces, and the maintenance of IP logs by cyber cafes. The Committee also recommended that internet service providers keep correct time logs and records.

The report also addressed the protection of children from adult websites and advised internet service providers to provide parental control software for every Internet connexion. The committee also identified lack of technical knowledge in the police as a problem. The report was well received by the courts, and its recommendations are being implemented the police and cyber cafés. The Cyber Crime Investigation Cell was set up pursuant to a recommendation made by the committee.

In 2003, the Government of India established the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) to ensure Internet security.[9] Its stated mission is "to enhance the security of India's Communications and Information Infrastructure through proactive action and effective collaboration".[10] CERT-IN is the agency that accepts and reviews requests to block access to specific websites. All licensed Indian ISPs must comply with CERT-IN decisions. There is no review or appeals process. Many institutions, including the Ministry of Home Affairs, courts, the intelligence services, the police and the National Human Rights Commission, may call on it for specialist expertise. By stretching the prohibition against publishing obscene content to include the filtering of Web sites, CERT-IN was empowered to review complaints and act as the sole authority for issuing blocking instructions to the Department of Telecommunications (DOT). Many have argued that giving CERT-IN this power through executive order violates constitutional jurisprudence holding that specific legislation must be passed before the government can encroach on individual rights.[1]

"I am mystified by our government's approach both to the internet and to the millions of Indians using it. It does not adhere to the values of our republic and democracy. This matter needs to be addressed urgently, for which I propose to file a PIL in the Supreme Court. Don't kill the freedom of speech, change the IT Rules", says Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Member of Parliament.[11]

Instances of censorship[edit]

Dawn website (1999)[edit]

Immediately after the Kargil War in 1999, the website of the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn was blocked from access within India by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, a government-owned telecommunications company which at the time had monopoly control of the international internet gateways in India.[12][13] Rediff, a media news website, claimed that the ban was instigated by the Indian government, and then published detailed instructions as to how one could bypass the filter and view the site.[14]

Yahoo Groups (2003)[edit]

In September 2003, Kynhun, a Yahoo group linked to the "Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council" (an illegal, minor separatist group from Meghalaya), which discussed the case of the Khasi tribe was banned.[15] The Department of Telecommunications asked Indian ISPs to block the group, but difficulties led to all Yahoo! groups being banned for approximately two weeks.[16]

Websites blocked (2006)[edit]

In July 2006, the Indian government ordered the blocking of 17 websites, including some hosted on the Geocities, Blogspot and Typepad domains. Initial implementation difficulties led to these domains being blocked entirely.[17][18][19] Access to sites on these domains other than those specifically banned was restored by most ISPs after about a week.[20]

Orkut and Indian law enforcement agreement (2007)[edit]

In 2007, Indian law enforcement entered an agreement with the then popular social networking site Orkut to track down what it deems defamatory content which, in their example, includes content critical of Bal Thackeray.[21]

IRC Undernet ban (2008)[edit]

IRC Undernet (www.undernet.org) was banned without any media coverage in 2008.[22][unreliable source?] However the ban was lifted.[when?]

2011[edit]

New IT rules adopted[edit]

The "IT Rules 2011" were adopted in April 2011 as a supplement to the 2000 Information Technology Act (ITA). The new rules require Internet companies to remove within 36 hours of being notified by the authorities any content that is deemed objectionable, particularly if its nature is "defamatory," “hateful," “harmful to minors," or "infringes copyright". Cybercafé owners are required to photograph their customers, follow instructions on how their cafés should be set up so that all computer screens are in plain sight, keep copies of client IDs and their browsing histories for one year, and forward this data to the government each month.[3]

Websites banned[edit]

In March 2011, the Government banned several websites, Typepad, Mobango, Clickatell, and Facebook for sometime without warning.[23]

On 21 July 2011, all file hosting websites were blocked by ISPs to prevent piracy of the film Singham, causing anger amongst Internet users.[24] This ban was later lifted.

On 24 December 2011, Reliance Communications, a widely used ISP, again blocked access to file-sharing sites, having obtained a John Doe order from a Delhi court to prevent piracy of the movie Don 2 several days before its release. The block was lifted on 30 December 2011.[25][26]

Pre-screening of Internet content[edit]

On 5 December 2011, The New York Times India Ink reported that the Indian government had asked several social media sites and internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo!, to "prescreen user content from India and to remove disparaging, inflammatory or defamatory content before it goes online."[27] Top officials from the Indian units of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook had several meetings with Kapil Sibal, India's acting telecommunications minister to discuss the issue in recent months, India Ink reported. In one meeting, Sibal asked these companies "to use human beings to screen content, not technology," the article said.

On 6 December 2011, communications minister of India Kapil Sibal held a press conference confirming the India Ink story. "We have to take care of the sensibilities of our people," Mr. Sibal told more than 100 reporters during a press conference on the lawn at his home in New Delhi. "Cultural ethos is very important to us."[28][29]

On 7 December 2011, The Times of India revealed that the search engine Google was asked to remove around 358 items by the Government of India out of which 255 items were said to criticise the government as per a Google transparency report. The government had asked Google to remove 236 items from Orkut and 19 items from YouTube for the same reason, it added. Other reasons include defamation (39 requests), privacy and security (20 requests), impersonation (14 requests), hate speech (8 requests), pornography (3 requests) and national security (1 request). Google admitted that 51 per cent of the total requests were partially or fully complied with.[30]

The news of banning and blocking objectionable content on the internet was seen negatively by many Indian netizens and #IdiotKapilSibal trended on Twitter after netizens expressed the outrage over the move.[31] It was seen as a way to block websites criticising the government. In an interview to NDTV, Kapil Sibal responded by saying that most of the content being asked to removed was pornographic in nature and involved deities, which could have caused communal disharmony.[32] While Kapil Sibal claimed that the government wanted to remove pornographic content, Google transparency report published by Google claims that the content that included protests against social leaders or used offensive language in reference to religious leaders were not removed.[33] Google on its transparency report states[34]

"We received requests from state and local law enforcement agencies to remove YouTube videos that displayed protests against social leaders or used offensive language in reference to religious leaders. We declined the majority of these requests and only locally restricted videos that appeared to violate local laws prohibiting speech that could incite enmity between communities. In addition, we received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove 236 communities and profiles from orkut that were critical of a local politician. We did not comply with this request, since the content did not violate our Community Standards or local law."

Google on this matter has also said that[35]

"When content is legal and does not violate our policies, we will not remove it just because it is controversial, as we believe that people's differing views, so long as they are legal, should be respected and protected."

While presently there are talks going on between the government and officials of internet companies like Google and Facebook, there is no consensus on this issue.[36]

Ban on Cartoons Against Corruption[edit]

The website of Cartoons Against Corruption was blocked by Crime Branch, Mumbai in December 2011

In 2011, a nation wide anti corruption movement India Against Corruption gathered pace in the leadership of a veteran Gandhian Anna Hazare demanding Jan Lokpal Bill. Political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi joined the crusade and started a cartoon based campaign, Cartoons Against Corruption to support the movement with his art. He launched a website www.cartoonsagainstcorruption.com consisting of his sharp anti corruption cartoons targeting corrupt system and the politicos. He displayed his cartoons in the MMRDA ground, Mumbai during the hunger strike of Anna Hazare.[37][38]

Aseem Trivedi was exhibiting his political cartoons from Cartoons Against Corruption in the anti-corruption protest at the MMRDA grounds, when his website was suspended by Crime Branch, Mumbai. It was only 27 December, the first day of the protest, when he received an email from BigRock, the domain name registrar with which his website was registered, saying, "We have received a complaint from Crime Branch, Mumbai against domain name 'cartoonsagainstcorruption.com' for displaying objectionable pictures and texts related to flag and emblem of India. Hence we have suspended the domain name and its associated services."[39]

The site was suspended after a complaint to the Mumbai Crime Branch by a Mumbai-based advocate and congress leader, R.P. Pandey. The complaint stated that "defamatory and derogatory cartoons" were displayed as posters during Mr. Hazare's hunger strike in Mumbai. Noting that the posters were created by Aseem Trivedi and "are believed to be made at the instance of Shri Anna Hazare," the complaint requested "strict legal action in the matter."[40]

Following his website's ban, Aseem Trivedi uploaded all the cartoons to a blog he quickly created.[41]

2012[edit]

Delhi court summons[edit]

Screenshot of a blocked site

In January 2012, a Delhi court issues summons to Google and Facebook headquarters for objectionable content.[42] This was followed by the Delhi High Court saying that websites such as Google and Facebook were liable for the content, posted on their platform by users, as they benefited from the content.[43] Google responded to both the Court and the Minister for Communication and IT Kapil Sibal, stating that it was impossible to pre-screen content.[44] A plea was made by an educationist citing any sanctions on the online services will directly affect the fundamental right and will be against public interest.[45] The Delhi Court also allowed Yahoo's case to be heard separately after it appealed citing it did not host any objectionable content and does not fall under the social networking site category.[46]

Websites blocked[edit]

Starting 3 May 2012, a number of websites including Vimeo, The Pirate Bay, Torrentz and other torrent sites were allegedly blocked by Reliance Communications, on orders from Department of Telecom without any stated reasons or prior warnings.[47][48] As of 12 May, the ban had been lifted and all sites are working properly again.[citation needed] As of 18 May, there were work-arounds and browser extensions like Unblock[49] that unblocked access to most of the blocked sites, either using a simple proxy like Google translate or redirecting to unblocked versions of the site.[citation needed] The sites Vimeo, Dailymotion, Torrentz.eu were later unblocked.[when?][citation needed]

Reliance DNS servers compromised[edit]

In May 2012, Anonymous India (AnonOpsIndia), a branch of the hacktivist group Anonymous hacked the servers of Reliance Communications to protest the blocking of Vimeo, The Pirate Bay, Torrentz and other torrent sites. Reliance Communications, an ISP stated that it simply followed a court order.[50][51] The group also hacked Reliance DNS servers preventing direct access to Twitter, Facebook and many other websites in India on 26 May 2012 for allegedly blocking its Twitter handle @OpIndia_Revenge.[52] They went on to warn the Government to restore all the blocked websites till 9 June 2012, and has planned a nationwide protests on the same date.[53][54]

Annulment motion in Parliament against 2011 IT Rules[edit]

An annulment motion against the Information Technology (Inter-­mediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 moved by Member of Parliament (MP) ­P ­Rajeev of the Communist Party of ­India (Marxist) in the Rajya Sabha, was the first serious attempt by internet freedom activists to get the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 discussed and reviewed by the country's lawmakers. Not unexpectedly, the motion (specifically against the rules governing intermediaries – clause (zg) of subsection (2) of Section 87 read with subsection (2) of Section 79 of the IT Act, 2000) was not carried. However, the discussion that preceded it at least demonstrated the concerns of parliamentarians about what internet freedom activists have termed the "draconian" provisions of the IT Act.[55][56]

Save Your Voice campaign[edit]

Main article: Save Your Voice

Save Your Voice is a movement against Internet censorship in India.[57] It is founded by cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and journalist Alok Dixit in January 2012. The movement opposes Information Technology Act of India and demands democratic rules for the governance of Internet. The campaign is targeted at the draconian rules framed under the Information Technology Act, 2000.[58]

Madras High Court: Entire websites cannot be blocked[edit]

Bayimg.com blocked by orders of Department of Telecom on BSNL broadband network in India as of 13 September 2012

On 15 June 2012, the Madras High Court has passed an order saying that entire websites cannot be blocked on the basis of "John Doe" orders. The High Court order reads:

The order of interim injunction dated 25 April 2012 is hereby clarified that the interim injunction is granted only in respect of a particular URL where the infringing movie is kept and not in respect of the entire website. Further, the applicant is directed to inform about the particulars of URL where the interim movie is kept within 48 hours.[59]

The High court provided this clarification after being approached by a consortium of Internet Service Providers. The order has been welcomed by the Indian media and net users.[60][61]

Domain hosting sites[edit]

Starting in July 2012 several domain hosting sites were banned. When opening these sites, a message saying that these sites have been blocked by the Department of Telecommunications or court order is displayed.[62][63] Sites such as Buydomains.com, Fabulous.com, and Sedo.co.uk were blocked.

Censorship following Assam violence[edit]

Between 18 and 21 August 2012 the Government of India ordered more than 300 specific URLs blocked. The blocked articles, accounts, groups, and videos were said to contain inflammatory content with fictitious details relating to Assam violence and supposedly promoting the NE exodus. These specific URLs include the domains of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, BlogSpot, WordPress, Google Plus, Wikipedia, Times of India, and other websites.[64] Many of the blocked URLs are Indian right wing activism against corruption.[65][66] This raised questions about freedom of speech in the largest democracy of the world. It also raised questions about the censorship of people and posts debunking rumors.[67] The Economic Times called the level of censorship as those "that have not so far been seen in India".[68] Over four days from 18 August, the Government of India issued directives to Internet Service Providers to block Twitter accounts of two Delhi based journalists - Kanchan Gupta and Shiv Aroor - and Pravin Togadia. The government also blocked the website of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and several other right-wing websites.[68] In addition, articles from Wikipedia, and news reports of violence in Assam on the websites of The Times of India, Firstpost, The Daily Telegraph and Al-jazeera were blocked.[68] A petition was created to oppose Internet censorship in India by the Indian diaspora in the US.[69]

Telecom Minister's website defaced[edit]

In November 2012, Anonymous India defaced Indian Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal's constituency website in protest against an amendment to the Information Technology Act and the recent crackdown on netizens for comments posted online.[70][71]

BSNL website defaced[edit]

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited's (BSNL) website, www.bsnl.co.in, was hacked by Anonymous India on 13 December 2012. They defaced the website with a picture stating that they protest against section 66A of the IT Act and in support of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and Alok Dixit. The duo have gone on a hunger striker to protest against Section 66A.[72][73]

2013[edit]

39 websites blocked[edit]

In an order dated 13 June 2013, the Department of Telecom (DoT) directed Indian Internet service providers (ISPs) to block 39 websites. The order didn't specify a reason or law under which the websites were blocked. Most are web forums, where Internet users share images and URLs to pornographic files. However, some of the websites are also image and file hosts, mostly used to store and share files that are not pornographic. While watching or distributing child pornography is illegal in India, watching adult pornography is not. The blocked websites are hosted outside India and claim to operate under the U.S. rule that requires performers to be over 18 years of age.[74]

2014[edit]

File sharing and file hosting sites banned[edit]

In an order dated 23 June 2014, the Delhi High Court upon a request made by Sony Entertainment ordered 472 file sharing and file hosting websites blocked, including The Pirate Bay, Google docs, Google Video, and Google’s URL shorterner, goo.gl. This is contrary to the 2012 Madras High Court orders which blocked only URLs referencing web pages with illegal content, rather than entire websites.[75] However, it was reported on 7 July 2014 that an updated court order blocks just 219 sites. Included are many file storage and torrent websites, but no Google sites.[76]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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