In India, online content can be blocked according to Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Directions for blocking of unlawful content may be given by the government on its own accord, or upon complaints made by individuals, as long as the directions fall within the reasonable restrictions that can be imposed on free speech according to the Indian Constitution. Instances of Internet censorship in India range from Internet shut-downs in various states, mass URL blocking as well as complete shut-down of websites.
Prominent instances that sparked public outrage include the recent blocking of 857 websites by the government of India on grounds of morality and decency. The list, which was said to include websites containing pornographic material, also includes unrelated websites such as College Humour and 9GAG, popular media sharing websites. Earlier this year, a ban on a comedy show and a documentary relating to a rape incident gathered a lot of criticism.
Last year, a whistle-blower’s website was blocked when the Madras High Court passed orders in a case of defamation against the website and over 300 websites (and not only URLs) were blocked for copyright infringement.
In another instance, in 2014, a list of 32 websites was leaked online, after which the government released an official statement claiming that said websites were blocked on claims that they were being used for Jihadi propaganda. Prominent instances of censorship in 2013 include the ban in February when the Department of Telecommunications reportedly blocked over 164 URLs in a span of two days. Again in June, about 39 websites allegedly containing pornographic material were blocked. In December that year the Minister of Communication and Information Technology said in an official statement that a total of 8,21,352 and 1,208 URLs were blocked during 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively by the government.
Censorship affects each one of us — it not only impinges on our freedom of speech and expression, but also hinders our freedom of information. The fear of being called upon for expressing one’s views can even lead to self-censorship.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark judgment in the case of Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, where it restructured India’s constitutional law of free speech for the Internet age. It observed that liberty of free speech and expression are cardinal values of paramount significance to the constitutional process in democracies. However, the Blocking Rules that apply to website blocking under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act 2000, which were also challenged before the Court, were left intact.
The Court believed that the 69A Rules had enough safeguards built-in and the government was bound to follow them. Such blocking orders could also be challenged under a writ petition under Article 226 in the High Courts. The Court further recognised that originator of the information (if identifiable) must also be heard before a blocking order is passed. However, it may be argued that in its decision the Supreme Court failed to take into account certain inherent deficiencies in the Blocking Rules. First, till date there is no record of a single hearing afforded to any originator of censored information. Second, owing to a confidentiality clause attached to the complaints and actions taken thereof, it is nearly impossible to know reasons for content blocking.
It may be argued that there could be genuine cases where websites/URLs are blocked due to unlawful content. However, such orders need to be made public so that there is greater transparency in the procedure. Several Right To Information pleas filed by Software Freedom Law Centre have not yielded information from the government about reasons for blocking of websites. A record of instances of censorship is depicted in the info-graphic below, details of these can be found on SFLC’s website.
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