Around 3,000 websites were blocked in 2018 by the government, which activists allege was done arbitrarily. Among the blocked websites are those of some human rights groups and environment groups. Pavan Duggal is a cyber law and security expert. A Supreme Court advocate, Duggal said the procedure of blocking a website is opaque and there is no transparency on what the specific reasons for blocking a website are. In an interview with ABHIJEET ANAND, Duggal said that blocking is not the answer to the problem.

Excerpts:

Q: Under which law have 3,000 URLs or websites been blocked by the government?

A: All URLs or websites in the country are blocked under Section 69- A of the IT Act, 2000. This is the provision that Parliament inserted in the IT Act in 2008. Prior to this, a general power of blocking was exercised by Computer Emergency Response Team. After 2008, it was felt there was a need for identifying and clarifying a law for blocking a website, so a distinct section in the IT Act was added, being Section 69-A. Blocking under Section 69-A cannot be done arbitrarily. There are certain minimum grounds which must be fulfilled before blocking can be ordered. These grounds are in the interests of sovereignty, security, integrity of India, friendly relations with other nations, public order, decency, morality or to prevent the commission of an offence. There is a process that is outlined. A committee is formed under the blocking rules; they must first take prior approval of the government. Once this approval is given directions are given to the Department of Telecommunications so that they can further direct the network service providers and telecom service providers to ensure that those URLs are not physically visible on computers located in India. I personally believe blocking is a very, very old, antiquated idea. It does not work in today’s world. Primarily because blocking a website is nothing but flagging off the popularity of a website. In India once you block a website or a URL, the traffic to the blocked website increases. Majority of the blocked websites are not physically located on servers within India. You cannot get down those servers outside the country. What you can do is make sure that service providers don’t make it available for viewing in India. But given that there are so many Virtual Private Networks and indirect ways of accessing the internet, you can go and see any blocked page. It is counterproductive and actually lands up getting far more traffic to the blocked website.

Q: But there are allegations that this has been done arbitrarily in case of websites run by activists of environment and human rights?

A: See the question is blocking is a very, very opaque process. There is no complete transparency on what the specific reasons on why particular URLs have been blocked are. Blocking of some URLs is understandable because of the nature of content therein. Lot of times, URLs are blocked with no ostensible connection with the grounds. But in case anyone is dissatisfied, they can challenge the blocking in a court of law. But, currently, we do not have much clarity in public domain or information on decisions on the basis of which a particular URL is blocked.

Q: Where does our country stand in freedom and openness of internet?

A: India’s Constitution is a living constitution. There you have various fundamental rights including freedom of speech and expression under Article 19. But this fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression is not absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions that can be imposed under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India. These reasonable restrictions again can be imposed in the interest of sovereignty, security, integrity, public order, friendly relations with other nations, decency or to prevent the commission of an offence. So, if you think that in India you have unbridled, unconditional freedom of speech and expression then you are mistaken because the Constitution itself provides for reasonable restrictions. To that extent, Indian Constitution is dramatically different from the American Constitution which has a broad connotation of what is free speech. One can criticise one’s President in US. But in India restrictions can be imposed and somehow this blocking is also often seen as restriction of freedom of speech and expression within the meaning of reasonable restrictions. Blocking is authorised by an Act of Parliament being the Information Technology Act. Blocking is done as per a procedure established under law that will qualify as a reasonable restriction under Article 19 (2) of the constitutions. Already, the entire issue of blocking was looked into by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal’s case which held that it is reasonable and upholds the validity of the Constitution.

Q: Have these laws including Section 66-A which has become infamous for being arbitrarily used been challenged in Supreme Court?

A: Section 66-A was challenged by a bunch of public interest litigations under Supreme Court. Supreme Court gave a common decision in the PILs in the case entitled Shreya Singhal Vs Union of India, 2015. The SC held that Section 66A was an unnecessary restriction under freedom of speech and expression which does not come under the ambit of reasonable restrictions under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. Consequently, they struck off Section 66A. However, the fact remains that a lot of police stations still continue to keep on registering cases under Section 66-A. But in that judgment, they also upheld constitutional validity of Section 79 of IT Act and various other provisions.

Q: Is it true there is in no perfect censorship technique in the cyber world?

A: In today’s world, there are no perfect censorship techniques. There are so many indirect ways of reaching the censored or targeted content. With Indians increasingly using Virtual Private Networks and “anonymisers” being used, it is getting even more difficult to catch someone. If I go through other routes and networks then I hide behind those networks and those networks are visible to the world. So, reaching me becomes a challenge. Identifying who I am becomes a challenge.

Q: Can somebody get information about why any URL has been blocked through the Right to Information Act?

A: Technically, yes you can ask for information under RTI Act. To the extent, it is not barred by RTI Act.