Defender of your Digital Freedom

All Posts | Aug 01,2020

SFLC.in wrote to the IT committee on issue of women saftey in Digital Spaces

SFLC.in wrote to the Standing Committee on Information Technology chaired by Dr. Shashi Tharoor on the issue of women safety in Digital space.

The current pandemic as well as the ongoing technological revolution have pushed the entire ecosystem to be online. This means that there are greater threats for women and marginalized communities in various forms over digital spaces, especially social media platforms.

SFLC.in had also released a report on Online Harassment which highlighted that online harassment is a form of censorship that forces people out of participating in the online discourse.

The letter listed out the need for protecting women and the marginalized communities in the digital space as well as highlighted certain suggestions for the committee. It also put forward certain questions for the ministry representatives.

SFLC.in has been conducting Digital Security Training to raise awareness about online saftey and educate attendees on the fundamentals of digital security. These trainings are hands on, interactive and are conducted free of cost.

Through the letter, SFLC.in has urged the committee to consider this issue in depth and has also offered to give any assistance required by the committee.

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All Posts | Oct 25,2019

Websites blocked in 2019

 Websites blocked by MeitY in 2019

In a reply to our latest RTI on blocked websites Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) revealed that the Ministry issued blocking orders for 20 websites between January to October 2019. No further information was provided by the Ministry.

The following information was sought by us:

1) Number of websites/URLs currently blocked in India.

2) Names and URLs of the websites blocked in 2019.

3)Copies of blocking orders issued in 2019.

In a reply to our RTI filed in 2017 we were informed that until August 2017 the number of websites/URLs blocked in India stood at 23,030. A reply to another RTI filed by us in 2018 disclosed that 14,221 websites were blocked between 2010 to 2018. This indicates a significant drop in the number of blocking orders from approx. 1,777 websites per year between 2010 and 2018, to 20 in 2019. 

Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 enables blocking of websites/URLs. This Section mentions that the Central Government or an officer authorized by it may, through a speaking order recorded in writing, block public access to information on a computer resource, by directing any agency of government or intermediary. Such public access is blocked when it is necessary ‘in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above’. In cases of non-compliance, intermediaries are liable for punishment with imprisonment which may extend to 7 years and a fine.

“The Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009’ provides the procedures and safeguards subject to which such blocking orders are to be carried out.

A copy of the response to our latest RTI is provided below.

All Posts | Feb 19,2019

Submission to Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology

Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology invited views on the issue of “Safeguarding Citizens Rights on Social/Online News Media Platforms”. The views were heard on 11th February 2019 along with inputs from MeitY and Twitter.

We at SFLC.in made our submission on common forms of harm on the internet, common remedial measures undertaken or provided by online platforms and the existing legal provisions. We also submitted our recommendations supporting right to privacy, endorsing strong encryption, emphasising importance of safe harbour for intermediaries, advocating wider consultations for finding solutions to tackle hate speech, opposing proactive monitoring of content and suggesting that intermediaries be free to come out with their own Terms of Service. Our submitted views are given below:

All Posts | Jan 07,2019

Over 14000 Websites Blocked By MEITY

There has been considerable spike in the number of websites/URLs being blocked from public access. Concerns on internet censorship cover inadequate safeguards, disproportionate blocking and ambiguous blocking orders.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), in its reply to an RTI application filed by SFLC.in has stated that the ministry has blocked 14221 websites/URLs between 2010 to 2018 under Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000. The Ministry refused to provide the names and URLs of websites blocked in 2018 and copies of blocking orders issued in 2018, taking refuge under Section 8(1)(a) of RTI Act read with Section 69A of the IT, Act and Rules under them.

Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 mentions that the Central Government or an officer authorized by it may, through a speaking order recorded in writing, block public access to information on a computer resource, by directing any agency of government or intermediary. Such public access is blocked when it is necessary ‘in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above’.

The section also provides for establishing a procedure and safeguards subject to which such blocking of access is to be carried out. Pursuant to this, the Central Government notified ‘The Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009’.

A copy of RTI reply has been published below.

All Posts | Aug 29,2018

Summary Report for Panel Discussion on Online Harassment at APrIGF2018

The 9th Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) convened from 13th to 16thAugust, 2018 at Iririki Island Resort, Port-Vila, Vanuatu with the overarching theme “Empowering Communities in Asia Pacific to build an Affordable, Inclusive, Open and Secure Internet”.

APrIGF is a multi-stakeholder platform for public policy discourse on Internet and its impact on society. Since 2010, this prime annual conference draws in discussions and incubates collaborations for the developments of universally affordable, accessible, non-discriminated, secure and sustainable Internet across the region. Discussion points from APrIGF are linked to the global Internet Governance Forum in the form of a Synthesis Document.

SFLC.in was represented by Tripti Jain (Counsel) at the conference who was selected to be an APrIGF fellow for 2018. She participated as a speaker in two sessions.

This is a summary post for the panel on online harassment titled “Responsibilities of Internet Platforms for Tackling Online Abuse Against Women & Other Marginalized Groups”

Dr. Monika Zalnieriute Zalnieriute (UNSW Sydney, Australia, Academia) was the organizer and moderator of the panel discussion. Other panelists were Shmyla Khan, (Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan, Civil society), Tess van Geelen (Queensland University of Technology, Australia, Academia), Shiwa Karmacharya, ( LOOM Nepal, Civil Society), Ankhi Das (Facebook in India and South & Central Asia) and Tripti Jain (SFLC.in, India, Civil Society).

Following are a few key points that were raised by the panelists:

  • Platforms should not undermine the obligations of platforms to tackle online abuse and violence against women;

  • Freedom of expression of some should not lead to censorship of others;

  • The recent report by UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye which addresses legitimate concerns around freedom of expression, while taking the rights of individuals and groups abused online; was discussed

  • Transparency is a necessary component for any effort to address and tackle online abuse against women and other discriminated groups.

The discussion began with Dr. Zalnieriute giving a brief overview about the issues concerning online harassment against women across the world and what are the obligations of platforms to tackle online abuse and violence.

Shmyla Khan (Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan), a remote presenter, discussed a few instances where content moderation/regulation by platforms and governments was rendered insufficient due to the nature and complexity of the harassment faced by women. She then mentioned a bit about the current moderation model. Shmyla finally highlighted the advantages and disadvantages of possible methods to balance free speech rights and protection from online harassment/abuse/hate speech.

Shiwa Karmacharya (LOOM in Nepal) talked about online violence in Nepal. She familiarized us with some background about the policies and the situation in Nepal, sharing the findings from a research she has been working on with 'EROTICS Nepal' (part of APC's EROTICS South Asia).

Tripti Jain (SFLC.in) discussed the situation of online violence against women in India, giving examples and citing a few instances, where women were attacked on different online platforms for voicing their opinions. Based on her research at SFLC.in. Tripti then highlighted how real world hate is manifested online. She then emphasized upon the issues/challenges while drafting robust legal responses to gender-based harassment online.

Tess Van Geelen from Queensland University of Technology in Australia explained human rights implications of online content moderation by private internet companies. She presented a PowerPoint presentation to share some recommendations from her empirical research at QUT, seeking to understand how platforms moderate harmful content in practice beyond online violence, including hate speech and terrorism.

Key Takeaways :

  1. There is a dire need to engage with platforms and have a serious dialogue, even if it is limited and constrained by the profit motivations and obligations of Internet corporations.

  2. We need to ensure that platforms maintain certain degree of transparency. Transparency is the first step in changing the secretive status quo of content moderation.

  3. Innovative thinking is needed from the Internet Governance community (among other communities, such as feminists, and LGBTQI community) to make sure that the situation does not remain the same.

  4. We as the Internet Governance community should be more participative and active in global consultation processes. We must collaborate and submit our comments to UN calls for submission on dealing with online harassment.

All Posts | Aug 09,2018

Parliament ’s last opportunity to Modify/Annul Telecom Suspension Rules 2017?

Prior to the notification of Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services, Internet shutdowns were ordered under two statutes i.e Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 (CrPC) and Indian Telegraph Act 1885. The situation changed after the promulgation of Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (hereinafter, the Telecom Suspension Rules) by the Ministry of Communications, on August 7th, 2017. These Rules conferred powers upon competent Government authorities to order blanket network outages in districts and states of India,these Rules are the only directions to suspend telecom services in India.

According to these Rules, directions to suspend telecom services shall not be issued except by an order made by a ‘competent authority’. Thus, according to Rule 2(1) the directions to suspend the telecom services shall be made only under these Rules and according to the procedure mentioned therein. This also implies that directions for suspension of telecom services, consequently network shutdowns, may not be ordered under any other provision of law, including Section 144 of CrPC 1973.

Though, these Rules lay down an elaborate procedure to suspend telecom services, there are still several areas of concern.

Firstly, these Rules were drafted by the Executive without any public consultation. When Rajya Sabha MP. Mr Husain Dalwai questioned the Government in the Parliament about the consultation process that was undertaken in finalizing these Rules, the Government responded saying that there was a consultation with the Ministries of Home Affairs, Finance, Communications, Electronics and Information Technology and NITI Aayog. This implies that there was no public consultation. Not only there was a lack of public consultation, there was no consultation with the state governments as well. Despite the fact that Internet Shutdown orders are imposed to maintain law and order in states and the fact that Public order and Police are mentioned as items under State list as per Schedule VIII of the Constitution of India, none of the states were consulted in the formulation of these rules.

Secondly, the Rules allow suspension of Telecom services during a public emergency or in the interest of public safety. While the terms “public emergency” and “public safety”, at least one of which must be present to issue an Internet shutdown order, are not defined under the Telegraph Act or any other law, they were interpreted by the Supreme Court of India in the matter of People's Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India[fn]AIR 1997 SC 568[/fn] to mean "the prevalence of a sudden condition or state of affairs affecting the people at large calling for immediate action", and "the state or condition of freedom from danger or risk for the people at large" respectively. Even with the Supreme Court’s guidance, these terms remain open to broad interpretation by the Government, and there is no objective standard to determine if a given situation qualifies as a public emergency or threatens public safety.

Thirdly the Rules provide that the oversight of telecom suspension is to be carried out by a single Review Committee, which comprises entirely of the members of the Executive. This severely compromises the independence and impartiality due to apparent conflict of interest when the authorization, conduct and review is carried out by a single arm of Government machinery. The public oversight principle is therefore not complied with.

Fourthly, there is a concern with respect to implementation of these Rules. We discovered this when we filed an application under Right to Information Act 2005 to the Rajasthan Home Department in April 2018, asking the following question among others:what is the exact number of Internet Shutdowns that were ordered in Rajasthan during 07.08.2017 to 01.05.2018?”. We received a response from the Home Department stating that our applications had been forwarded to various district-level departments, and that we would be receiving the requested information from those departments. We received responses from various district Police Commissioners and District Magistrates, instead of Secretary of the Rajasthan Home Department. This implies that the Internet shutdown orders are being issued by the District Magistrates and District Police Commissioners in spite of the Rules being in force.

Fifthly, the Central and State Review Committees established by the Rules are meant to prevent overbroad interpretations of the Act, the efficacy of this review process is entirely questionable as the Committees are required to convene only within five working days of the issue of Internet shutdown orders, by which time most shutdowns would already have been imposed and lifted. Even if the Committee were to determine in such a situation that an Internet shutdown was wrongfully imposed, the damage would already have been done, rendering the finding moot.

Lastly, the new Rules also fail to accommodate the principle of transparency. There is no provision under the Rules which provide for notification of shutdowns in press or official gazettes. Considering that TSPs offering Internet services in the country do not consistently issue notifications before shutdowns are imposed, users in affected areas are often caught unaware and have little to no time to make arrangements to mitigate the impact of shutdowns.

This concludes that though these Rules are better than the archaic provision of Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, a provision of law which was clearly not designed to oversee State actions like Internet shutdowns. But at the same time, these rules continue to sustain various flaws that need to be addressed.

A Rajya Sabha MP, Mr. Husain Dalwai, introduced a statutory motion asking for annulment of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 (hereinafter, the Telecom Suspension Rules) on July 31st 2018 in the Rajya Sabha. Though the motion has been admitted in the Rajya Sabha, it has not been listed in the list of business of the Rajya Sabha yet. There are only two days before the end of this monsoon session and these days are the last two days for a discussion on this motion.

At the end of every session of Rajya Sabha, the Secretariat publishes a list of Statutory Rules and Orders made under the delegated powers of legislation, laid on the Table of the Rajya Sabha during that session and the period during which modification can be made in those rules and orders.[fn]Chapter 26, Rajya Sabha at Work, List of Statutory Orders laid during a session, Page no. 794(23 of 59) https://rajyasabha.nic.in/rsnew/rsat_work/archive/chapter-26.pdf [/fn]

Similarly, after introduction of Telecom Suspension Rules 2017, the Secretariat on Tuesday, December 26, 2017, after the end of Winter session 2017, issued a bulletin stating that The Telecom Suspension Rules made under the delegated powers of legislation and published in the Gazette were laid on the Table of the Rajya Sabha during the week ending December 15, 2017. The Orders will be laid on the Table for a period of 30 days, which may be comprised in one session or in two or more successive sessions. Members can move a motion for modification/annulment before the expiry of the session, immediately, following the session in which the laying period of 30 days is completed.[fn]Section 7, Indian Telegraph Act 1885, Power to make rules for the conduct of telegraphs: Subsection 11 Clause (5) states, “[Every rule made under this section shall be laid as soon as may be after it is made before each House of Parliament while it is in session for a total period of thirty days [which may be comprised in one session or in two or more successive sessions, and it, before the expiry of the session immediately following the session or the successive sessions aforesaid] both Houses agree in making any modification in the rule or both Houses agree that the rule should not be made, the rule shall thereafter have effect only in such modified form or be of no effect as the case may be; so, however, that any such modification or annulment shall be without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done under that rule.]"[/fn] The Rules were laid in Winter Session that convened on 15th December 2017 and ended on 5th January 2018 which means 22 days and 14 sittings in Rajya Sabha. As per the bulletin the period of 30 days for tabling a statutory order continued in the budget session. Therefore, the end of this session would mark an end to the opportunity for the Parliament to modify / annul these Rules.

Thus, noting the emergency of the situation, it is important for the Business Advisory Committee of Rajya Sabha [ a Committee that recommends the time that should be allocated for the discussion of the stage or stages of such Government Bills and other business as the Chairman in consultation with the Leader of the House may direct for being referred to the Committee.] If no time is allotted to the motion in concern, this motion will lapse and these Rules can no longer be challenged in Parliament.



All Posts | Apr 25,2018

Report Launch by ICRIER, “Internet Blackout: Measuring the Economic Blackout of Internet Shutdowns in India”

Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relarions (ICRIER) launched a report, "Internet Blackout: Measuring the Economic Blackout of Internet Shutdowns in India", on 25th April 2018, at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.

The launch event began with a short keynote by Rajat Kathuria, Director and Chief Executive at ICRIER followed by the report launch and a panel discussion. The panel comprised the following: Rajat Kathuria, Rai Mahimapat Rai (District Magistrate, Collector & Deputy Commissioner, Ranchi), Rajan Mathews (Director General, CAOI), Raman Jit Singh Chima (Policy Director, Access Now) and Sanjeev Bikhchandani (Founder, Naukri.com). The discussion focussed on the impact of Internet Shutdowns and challenges ahead of nation in the Internet Era.

Rajat Kathuria provided a brief about the report, noting that it provides quantative estimates with respect to Internet Shutdowns in India on the basis of elasticities for mobile Internet an total Internet consumption. He futher went to emphasize that this report is published just to inform people about the current situation with regards to Internet shutdowns in the country and there are no policy recommendations in the report. He also brought forth that none of the top ten cities (classified according to GDP) apart from Ahemdabad have ever seen an Internet Shutdown. He added that in order to conclude their qualitative analysis, reserachers from ICRIER went to seven different cities and interviewed people from different walks of life.

Rai Mahimapat Rai recited his experience about an Internet Shutdown that he imposed in Bokaro district in 2016, following the stone pelting and arson activities between two religious communities on the occasion of Ram Navami. He was of the view that hyperlocalized shutdowns do not work in a district because rumours spread like fire and if Internet is not plugged out in time, the impact would spread across the state. When questioned about economic impact of Internet Shutdowns, Mr Rai stated that economic activity is one of the last concerns for a District Magistrate at the time of an emergency. He further mentioned that at the time of a curfew all the activities come to a standstill and not just the ones that are facilitated by Internet. In addition, he personally is of the opinion that Section 144 is more convenient to control the situation at hand and the telecom suspension rules are cumbersome to implement.

Rajan Mathews suggested that there should be a disaster management mechanism which is feasible to follow, and the Government should be equipped technologically and physically to deploy the same. When asked whether the telecos have a policy of informing their customers about Internet shutdowns, he said that no such policies were in place at the time. However, he said that it should be one of the responsibilities of telcos to inform their customers in advance about network shutdowns.

Sanjeev Bikhchandani also agreed that the administrative and Government authorities should be equipped with the tools to use the Internet for counter-speech purposes to manage public emergencies. He also said that there is a need to build a reliable mechanism to do this, adding that people would trust messages from the Government if they are sent often.

Raman Jit Cheema from Access Now, brought forth his concerns with respect to use of Section 144 to shutdown the Internet. Furthermore, he requested the personnel from DoT in the audience that there should be a public dialogue for policies like Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services rules. He expressed his concerns with respect to the fact how the policy was drafted in closed doors, without a dialogue.

All Posts | Feb 12,2018

RTI: MeitY provides details of Blocked Websites/URLs

On August 28, 2017, SFLC.in filed an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005 seeking the following information:

1. The number of websites that are currently blocked in India.

2. Names and URLs of the websites that are blocked.

3. Copies of blocking orders that have been issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) to block such websites.

MeitY responded to the request on October 6, 2017, by providing only the specific number of websites / URLs that are blocked (23,030). The rest of the information was withheld on the basis of Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 which says that strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the blocking requests and complaints received and actions taken thereof.

Thereafter, on October 9, 2017, a clarification was sent by the ministry, indicating that the previous response contained a typographical error, and the correct total number of websites / URLs that are blocked is 11, 422.

A first appeal was filed by us raising the following grounds:

1. The reply withholding the information is against Section 22 of the Right To Information Act, 2005 which states:

The provisions of this Act shall have effect notwithstanding anything inconsistent therewith contained in the Official Secrets Act, 1923, and any other law for the time being in force or in any instrument having effect by virtue of any law other than this Act.”

In other words, this means that where there is any inconsistency in a law as regards furnishing of information, such law shall be superseded by the RTI Act. The information that the applicant is seeking does not come under any of the exemptions provided under section 8 and 9 of the RTI Act.

Therefore Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 should be overridden by Section 22.

2. In the interest of transparency and accountability, the public has a right to access such information. Also, it is important to ensure that such blocking of websites / URLs does not lead to excessive censorship.

Following this, the First Appellate Authority called us for a discussion on December 8, 2017, and agreed to furnish information related to blocking orders that were passed in pursuance of a court order. Information related to websites / URLs that were blocked under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 was denied on the grounds that it would be counterproductive to maintaining national security and public order.

The files provided by MeitY are attached below

Blocked URL Database-Court Order-2015 and 2016.xlsx

Blocked URL Database-Court Order-2017.xlsx (Links for Sheet 11 are given in the below PDF) 



All Posts | Aug 04,2015

DOT orders blockage of porn websites

A leaked order from the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) has revealed that Indian Internet Service Providers (ISP) have been directed to block access to a list of 857 porn websites as they "relate to morality, decency as given in Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India" (sic). The order dated July 31, 2015 calls for the blockage of these websites under Section 79(3)(b) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act), and contains the single largest list of pornographic URLs to ever have been blocked in India. The order appears to have already been partially implemented, as confirmed by subscribers of several major ISPs such as MTNL, BSNL and Spectranet. Though the websites remain accessible on some ISPs' networks as of August 3, 2015, it likely is only a matter of time before a blanket ban is in place.

The present blockage of websites comes as somewhat of a surprise, since a petition [Kamlesh Vaswani v. Union of India; W.P.(Crl.) No. 177/2013] seeking a nation-wide ban on Internet porn has been pending before the Supreme Court of India since 2013 (details available here). Over the course of the proceedings, the Government had stated that mass blockage of porn websites would be highly impractical and tantamount to violation of the Constitutional rights to free speech and privacy [Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution]. The matter had subsequently been referred to the Cyber Regulations Advisory Committee, which in turn had commissioned the Internet and Mobile Association of India to prepare a list of websites to be blocked. At the petition's latest hearing on July 8, 2015 however, the Supreme Court itself had refused to issue an interim blocking order, maintaining that the Court could not dictate what citizens may or may not watch within the four walls of their rooms. Such an order, it was said, would violate Article 21 of the Constitution. The petition is next listed on August 10, 2015.

Also curious is the fact that the present blocking order has been issued under Section 79(3)(b) of the IT Act rather than Section 69A, which was inserted into the IT Act by way of a 2009 Amendment for the specific purpose of authorizing the blockage of on-line content in public interest. Unlike Section 79(3)(b), which is essentially an exception to the safe-harbor protection granted to intermediaries under Section 79(1), Section 69A and the Rules framed thereunder carry detailed substantive and procedural provisions that enable the Central Government to block URLs under specified circumstances. Said procedure contains numerous safeguards in oversight of the blocking process, such as examination of blocking requests by an internal Government committee, opportunities to those hosting objectionable content to be heard, and review of blocking orders by a Review Committee. Moreover, the Supreme Court had in its judgment in the matter of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India upheld the constitutionality of the Rules framed under Section 69A, as they adequately safeguarded the interests of affected parties in the Court's opinion. It was also held that blocking orders issued under Section 69A could be challenged by way of writ petitions filed under Article 226 of the Constitution, implying that the orders themselves would be made available to the affected parties. Similar opportunities are absent when blocking orders are issued instead under Section 79(3)(b), since the Section does not specify a formal procedure with respect to the issuance and enforcement of the orders. This could even mean, as it does in the present case, that the general public could remain unaware of the existence of blocking orders in the absence of leaks. It therefore is rather puzzling that the DOT chose to block porn websites through an order issued under Section 79(3)(b) as opposed to the well-established procedure laid down under Section 69A and the Rules framed thereunder.

It's also worth noting at this point that there is no legal prohibition against watching Internet porn in India. While the production and distribution of pornographic material (off-line and on-line) are prohibited by a confluence of legislations including the Indian Penal Code, Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the Information Technology Act, accessing such material in itself - other than child pornography - is not punishable. A detailed exposition of the law surrounding pornography in India is available here.

The policy approach to Internet porn thus being in a visible state of flux, the Supreme Court's verdict in the Kamlesh Vaswani matter is expected to lend some much needed clarity. Pornography and its impact on society have been the topic of much debate world over, and it will be interesting to say the least to see how the Court transposes these arguments to the Indian context.