Newsclick interviewed Prabir Purkayasta, Chairman, Society for Knowledge Common on the Government of India’s decision to block more than 30 websites including vimeo, Daily Motion, Internet Archive and Github under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 supposedly to prevent ‘anti-India’ content being spread by ISIS. Prabir called this act killing mosquitoes with cannon — for blocking one or two paged entire sites with thousands of pages and millions of users have been blocked. He also mentioned the problems with the IT Act and how it doesn’t impose any obligation on the authority to inform the public or give reasons for blocking of the websites.
Rishab Bailey(RB): hello and welcome to Newsclick. The Indian government has a couple of weeks ago ordered all ISPs to block 32 websites including popular websites such as Github and Vimeo. While 4 of the 32 websites now have been unblocked, the issue with time has picked up quite a storm with the Indian government being accused of over reach and arbitrary actions to censor these websites. To discuss the matter we have with us Prabir Purkayasta, chairman, Society for Knowledge Commons as well as vice president of the Free Software Movement of India. Hi Prabir thanks for being with us today. Now why is the blocking of these websites problematic? Why is there such furore over these websites that have been blocked?
Prabir Purkayastha(PP): you see, each of these websites have huge no.of pages for instance Github has 8 million users and it does a lot of code sharing, lot of people run their projects on Github. Vimeo has huge no. of videos that you can actually see, very similar to YouTube and it’s a more public one in the sense that advertisements etc are lower on Vimeo. So given all this, these are the websites which are really in some sense carriers of a whole lot of other peoples sites and material and if you have one or two pages which you find objectionable to ask for blocking the entire site is really like killing a fly and firing a canon at it and that has been the basic criticism for some of these blockings. Other blockings, particularly Github and all is completely inexplicable because they are really code sharing sites. People have projects and share codes on these sites. So, this is completely inexplicable why these have also been identified for blocking.
RB: now, ostensibly blocking has been done because the sites are encouraging Indian youth to support ISIS and other militant groups in the Middle East. Do you actually think that is correct? And has government dealt in the correct manner?
PP: you know, it is like saying that the telephone companies are supporting ISIS because people can use telephone for such purpose. So we have to distinguish what a purpose for the website is and how its use you may object to, if some people post objectionable material on it. This has been discussed earlier when BlogSpot if you remember was blocked and it was identified at that time that a few pages needed to be blocked instead of which the ISPs had blocked blogspot.com, blogspot.in and so on. So this is a well traded ground. This is not the first time that this is happening. So therefore if there is a belief that couple of pages are objectionable or some of the material is objectionable it should be targeted to only those. Blanket ban of these sites to my mind is absolutely stupid and expose Indian authorities to ridicule.
RB: and arguably unconstitutional as well but what is the system for blocking content under the IT Act and was it actually followed in this case?
PP: well, this is the biggest problem with IT Act itself, let us be very clear that 69(a) has this problem that there is no reason that why authorities will publicize what they have done. It does not impose any obligation on them to tell the people that we have blocked these sites for the following reasons and in fact the order which went from the department of telecom to the ISPs because ISPs are the telecom license owners. The ISPs have a license from the department of the telecom so therefore what instructions had to be given to them by the government of India goes to the department of telecom. In that letter which is sent to the ISPs, it says don’t report back what you have blocked, don’t give names of what you have blocked. So there is also an additional layer of secrecy that is supposed to be maintained which is not given in the act but nevertheless it does not also prevent the government from keeping this secret. The instructions were supposed to be given on 17th December and we found out about the blocking only because some of the ISPs successfully blocked the sites, some of the ISPs have yet not blocked the sites, its only through that the picture slowly emerged that systematic blocking of some sites is going on and that’s how this whole issue came into public domain. So the problem that is there in the 69(a) is that all of this is under secrecy. So therefore there is no redress, no information and everything is opaque.
RB: the rules for blocking of information which are laid out under section 69(a) were supposedly in line with the constitutional norms as well as the data of the Supreme Court from the PUCL case. Essentially the Supreme Court has said that executive can take action on such issues because they are national security and other such concerns. So how do you balance such interests?
PP: see at the moment we are not talking about the blocking itself is right or wrong. Let us assume for instance that the blocking was required because some of the sites were carrying objectionable material those pages needed to be blocked. So we are really talking about the breath of the blocking. Instead of a few pages the entire sites were blocked. The second issue is, if you block the information that needs to be blocked should be made public and ISPs were given instructions should display that this page has been blocked under the instruction of this authority not what some of the sites were displaying “under competent authority” was totally ambiguous. So we don’t know who has blocked the sites, we don’t know if it the court’s order which has caused the blocking of the site. We do not know what to do to redress. Suppose I find, which is true in this case, that Github I have hosted a project and my project is at stake, I need to go to court but who do I go to court against. Against what order do I go to court. All this is opaque and that’s the problem with the 69(a).
RB: so do you think judicial scrutiny would take care a lot of these problems? So would you say that judicial scrutiny is required for all cases of blocking except may be in exceptional circumstances when there is an emergency may be?
PP: well it’s a debatable issue, I do think it should be justifiable which is different from saying there should be judicial order. I am okay if there is an executive order because it may be as there are a lot of things have to be done, for every time going to the judiciary may be a problem but we should have the right to redress by virtue of public information being available. Who has blocked it for what reason and then if you have a difference then we should be able to go to court.
RB: now of course under pinning all of this, this is one of the basic question, is blocking content on internet a losing battle? After all we have had various instances in the past where government has tried to block some of the content. We all know china has been trying to block content famously and you will still find it to work around. I mean people always find ways to work around these bans.
PP: I think there are two parts to this you know one is that I think blocking is increasingly more and more difficult in terms of creating an impermeable wall that’s what going to happen. Nevertheless there is a case for blocking if for instance hate speech is done, if for instance riots are sought to be whipped up. So I think there is an argument for blocking of certain kinds of material on the internet. I would only say that this has to be done with due exercise of mind and it should be justiciable. I mean, I should go and display and talk about it and ask the court to intervene and lift the blocking if necessary. The other part of it is that I think is also there is much better information required from the government side about what is wrong. So if such things happen there is a need to expose what is correct rather than resort to only blocking as a knee jerk reaction which it seems to be what is happening. So a lot of this material is actually useless, the fact that the few people are seeing it or acting on it seems to have prompted by this one Bangalore engineer who seems to have got into ISIS through the internet but this as a lone instance cannot be used as a principle of carrying large scale executive action which is what seems to have been done in this case.
RB: Now given that very often it is said that offline rights should apply online. So isn’t there you think a valid argument to say that similar censorship regime which is applicable in the offline world should be made applicable to the online world? So when you are talking about executive action being only possible choice because of the nature of the medium, is that a necessarily correct?
PP: well I would think that if we argue for offline rights and online rights being same we have also to argue that hate speech if that is to be banned offline should also be banned online you really cannot argue against it. So as a principle I would uphold the argument that certain kinds of material should be blocked if it leads to hate crime.
RB: that’s all the time we have here on Newsclick. Do join us for another episode