How Not to Block Websites and Inform People

The blocking of some websites and twitter handles recently have produced different kinds of response – some have questioned the blocking itself while others have argued that the government action was ham handed even if the intent was justified. We also had the strange spectacle of Narendra Modi claiming to be a champion of free speech, in spite of his and BJP’s record of muzzling people. The mystery cleared up when we realised that among the sites blocked were a number of Hindu fundamentalist sites fishing in the troubled waters of Assam riots.

First the facts. The riots in the Bodo areas of Assam and the attacks on Rohingyas –who are Muslims — in the Rakhine province of Myanmar, led to a number of websites circulating images allegedly from these areas. A Pakistani blogger, Faraz Ahmed thought that he had seen these images earlier in various newsclips completely unconnected to Assam and Myanmar riots and decided to investigate. He found that almost all such images circulating on certain websites and in the social media were fake or doctored. Some of them claiming to be from Myanmar were in fact from China, where Buddhists monks were helping to bury the dead Instead, they were claimed to be of Buddhists in Myanmar killing Rohingyas.

In mid July, Faraz brought this out in his article in Express Tribune in Pakistan and also in his blog. However, neither the government nor the main-stream media took any notice of this. Meanwhile, these doctored images were circulating widely, stoking unrest. It spilled over in the public arena with protests in Mumbai, Lukhnow and Allahabad.

Things started getting even worse when North-east communities were targeted. In Bangalore, mass SMS’es were circulated, some of them threatening, some based on what others had heard. Which of them were the result of rumours, which were mischievous attempts to rouse hatred between the North-east communities and the Muslims and which were unrelated incidents that got coupled in an already tense environment, is difficult to know. This resulted in mass exodus from Bangalore and other towns in Karnataka for North-east.

The question I am addressing is not what really happened and who were behind such attempts. This merits a separate article. I am going to restrict myself only to what the Government did, particularly on the blocking of websites.

The government took two major steps – one was to ban bulk SMS’es and the other to block about 380 odd urls. This time the government was careful – the instructions were issued for blocking specific page urls, except for a few sites and not the entire sites. In spite of this, some Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) had blocked whole domains in order to block specific sites.

I am not questioning here that whether the government should block websites or not. I accept that the government has the right to block pages if they violate the laws of the land. There are reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech as defined in 19(2) of the constitution and subsequently refined by the courts in interpreting this provision. And there is no question that the events in August was an abnormal situation and the government was within its rights to exercise such powers that has been granted to it under the IT Act. And if twitter accounts of people like Kanchan Gupta and Pravin Togadia were being used to spread hate and misinformation, then blocking such twitter handles is also correct and is not bringing back of Mrs. Gandhi’s emergency as the BJP crowd on social media were claiming.

The questions on government actions are quite different. Is blocking of websites the only response that a government should have or are other responses also required? The second question is whether blocking was done with a proper application of mind or was it a mindless response. The third question is whether the blocking of the websites or web pages was done as per the procedure laid down in the Act or was it done without following the due process. As we shall see, the government’s response comes out quite poorly on all the three counts.

Let us look at the larger issues. Riots had taken place so there is already a fragile communal situation. Pictures of alleged atrocities are circulating for more than a month. What were the government agencies doing all this while? Were they not monitoring what goes on in the social media? Or on various sites? Why are there 12 agencies all snooping into peoples mails, monitoring net traffic, working on cyber security with bloated budgets, all of whom seem to have been blissfully ignorant through entire July and most of August when such pictures were circulating. Incidentally, it was not just Islamic fundamentalist sites who were indulging in this. Some Hindu fundamentalist sites also were using pictures that were morphed claiming atrocities on Hindus. Among the sites blocked, 20% are such sites.

This brings out the key problem – when hate material is being circulated based on patent falsehood, what should a government do? Should it just issue instructions for blocking or should it also try and make clear that such images and information are doctored? Should it not try and talk to the leaders of the communities to issue denials and expose such attempts? Instead of pro-actively doing this, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) allowed the issue to build up, either through ignorance or through sheer inertia. And then it went on an overdrive claiming this was cyber war from across the border and blaming Pakistani agencies for this campaign.

It is clear if we go through the websites and the urls that it was not a Pakistani government inspired affair but attempts by a few fundamentalist groups in Pakistan and elsewhere. It has also been reported that Ministry of External Affairs is upset that 4 years of patient diplomatic work with Pakistan has gone down the drain as MHA tried to shift the blame on to Pakistan, in order to absolve themselves of any responsibility.

It was not enough that they reacted late and tried to claim that it was a cyber war. They also reacted by blocking all sites that carried these images, including Faraz Ahmed’s blog and Express Tribune’s page that showed how the pictures were fake and carried the original images as well. A number of new reports, some of them quite balanced also were banned only because they carried these images or talked about the communal situation. Some of the reports that have been blocked online did not have any action taken on the printed version of the same stories. As we go to the press, even after all this being brought to government’s notice, such pages remain blocked.

If I look at the list of urls that MHA used and Cert-in, the agency under Department of Electronics and Information Technology notified for blocking, it is clear that there is a basic lack of competence. The only explanation one can have of blocking sites that were exposing the fake images, is if such image are searched using a search tool and all pages that came up with such images are blocked without examining the content of these pages. And of course not knowing what what url to block if you really want to block a video on youtube. In other words a lack of elementary competence on social media and the Internet.

Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet & Society has done a detailed analysis of 309 of such urls that have been blocked. His analysis shows a number of mistakes, which meant that the actual pages would not actually have been blocked. So even if the intent to block such urls were carefully worked out, they suffered from inadequate knowledge of the Internet urls, their parameters and how to block them.

The third issue is whether proper procedures as laid down in the IT Act under 69A was followed. The government agencies have said that the Act was followed fully and this will be borne out if information is sought under Right to Information.

However, there are various questions that still exist. Did government try to use only powers under 69A which are meant for the government or also used the safe harbour provision under 79. Under 69A, there are clear provisions laid down how the government must act, what kind of material it can prohibit and who should issue such orders. Under 79, the government can inform the intermediary and if the intermediary does not act, it can then lead to its losing safe harbour. The Rules that have been framed in effect take away the safe harbour and introduces who new set of elements that are not there under 69A of the Act and therefore widening the possibility of its misuse. This is what P. Rajeev, the CPI(M) raised in the Rajya Sabha and has been voiced by various groups in the country. So it is important that the government does not take recourse to 79 but only under 69A. Did it do so or did take recourse to Section 79 of the Act? The letter issued to ISP’s also do make clear under what section has it been decided to block the urls.

Looking at the instructions that have been issued to ISP’s for blocking – and I have a copy of one such instruction, it is very strange to find that it says at the end that the compliance letter should not mention the urls being blocked. It is this kind of statements that raise suspicion about the government.

What the government should do when it blocks sites or web pages is to be transparent about it. Hiding what it is doing can only create doubts about its intentions.

A review of what the government did is important, not because of our desire to criticise it, but also for the government to learn from its mistakes. At the moment, there does not appear to be a recognition that the government reacted late and reacted badly when it did. If the government agencies do not learn from its mistakes, unfortunately all of us will be condemned to suffer from them again.