Dissecting the social media blocks

IN Censorship | 23/08/2012
Could the government have been more transparent? How can websites defend themselves against a govt ban?
APAR GUPTA and PRANESH PRAKASH provide some answers to MIR UBAID

The present crisis of the displacement of North Eastern people from cities in the South and in Maharashtra, allegedly because  rumours spread by Social Media and Mobile messaging created panic, has  raised several questions. The issue of censorship of online media has been revived after the Indian government ordered the blocking of more than 250 sites containing doctored images and videos, allegedly intended to fuel communal tensions between Muslim and the North-Eastern communities.

One question which arises is regarding the method of blocking employed by the government. Should it be more transparent?  The other question pertains to the  role of regular online users in dealing with such rumours.

Q: Why have they (URLs, Twitter accounts, posts, blogs, images, videos, websites) been blocked?

Pranesh Prakash, Programme Manager with the Center for Internet & Society on his blog says:

As far as I could determine, all of the blocked items have content (mostly videos and images have been targeted, but also some writings) that are related to communal issues and rioting. (Please note: I am not calling the content itself "communal" or "incitement to rioting", just that the content relates to communal issues and rioting.) This has been done in the context of the recent riots in Assam, Mumbai, UP, and the mass movement of people from Bangalore.

There were reports of parody Twitter accounts having been blocked. Preliminary analysis on the basis of available data, show that parody Twitter accounts and satire sites have not been targeted solely for being satirical. For instance, very popular parody Twitter accounts, such as @DrYumYumSingh are not on any of the four orders circulated by the Department of Telecom. (I have no information on whether such parody accounts are being taken up directly with Twitter or not: just that they aren't being blocked at the ISP-level. Media reports indicate six accounts have been taken up with Twitter for being similar to the Prime Minister's Office's account.)

Q: Should the government list the websites and links that are blocked?

Apar Gupta, lawyer and blogger says:

Yes, in my opinion the list of websites which are blocked should be published however there is presently no legal obligation for such orders to be made public.

As per news reports the blocks have been made as per Sec. 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Sec. 69A of the IT Act, contains the power to issue directions for blocking for public access of any information through any computer resource. The procedure for such blocking has further been set out under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009. These rules when empowering a Designated Officer under Rule 8 or the Secretary, Department of Information Technology under Rule 9 to order such blocks do not obligate them to publish such orders.

However, if one contrasts this with how books are banned the legal provisions clearly provides for public orders which contain the details of the book, including its title and author. Such banning orders are published in the official gazette. Even the Right to Information Act, 2005 states under Sec. 4(1)(c) that public authorities should provide all facts when making decisions which effect the public. I realize that the book banning provisions are specific to books and the Right to Information Act is a general enactment which is overridden by a more specific and later enactment.

However concealing information about web blocks is incongruous with the general scheme of our legal system where government decisions which affect the public are not made in dark rooms and then buried in confidential files

 Q: Do you think there should a greater transparency in the process?

Apar Gupta says:

Yes, certainly. I have written before that, "Information on the blocks comes from news reports and not through any official government orders which are made publicly available. This continues the awful trend of blocking such websites (in the instant case a micro-blog hosted on twitter) through secretive administrative processes rather than public gazette notifications. This atmosphere of secrecy in which nothing can be confirmed and everything can be denied makes people presume the worst. [They are left with a notice simpliciter - "access to this page has been blocked as per instructions from the department of telecom".] This breeds suspicion of authoritarianism, even if the acts of censorship may be legitimate by themselves. Such actions are hallmarks of a nation of lords rather than of laws."

 Q: So what should the government have done?

Pranesh Prakash says:

Given that the majority of the information it is targeting is on Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, the government could have chosen to fight alongside those services to get content removed expeditiously, rather than fight against them. (There are some indications that the government might be working with these services, but it certainly isn't doing enough.)

For instance, it could have asked all of them to expedite their complaints mechanism for a few days, by ensuring that the complaints mechanism is run 24x7 and that they respond quickly to any complaint submitted about communal incitement, spreading of panic, etc. This does not need the passing of an order under any law, but requires good public relations skills and a desire not to treat internet services as enemies. The government could have encouraged regular users to flag false rumours and hate speech on these sites. On such occasions, social networking sites should step up and provide all lawful assistance that the government may require. They should also be more communicative in terms of the help they are providing to the government to curtail panic-inducing rumours and hate speech. (Such measures should largely be reactive, not proactive, to ensure legitimate speech doesn't get curtailed.)

The best antidote for the rumours that spread far and wide and caused a mass movement of people from Bangalore to the North-Eastern states would have been clear debunking of those rumours. Mass outreach to people in the North-East (very often the worried parents) and in Bangalore using SMSes and social media, debunking the very specific allegations and rumours that were floating around, would have been welcome. However, almost no government officials actually used social media platforms to reach out to people to debunk false information and reassure them. Even a Canadian interning in our organization got a reassuring SMS from the Canadian government.

It is indeed a pity that the government notified a social media engagement policy now, when the need for it was so very apparent all of the past week.

Q: What do you suggest needs to be done to deal with hate sites?

Apar Gupta says:

I personally have a very high tolerance for any form of speech and I believe before censoring any form of speech the underlying issues need to be addressed. I feel deeply conflicted and do not have any easy answers for this.

Q: What recourse do websites have to defend themselves in the face of a government ban?

Apar Gupta says:

I do not see a resolution of a block through an administrative process. The government has not made any attempt to contact the authors of the posts/websites which have been deemed communal by it as it was obligated to under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009. The resolution to this is clearly through litigation. There are good grounds to approach a court on the procedural lapses committed by the government in directing blocks against such websites. On more substantive arguments, I am not so sure about the chances of such a case since we enjoy a conditioned and limited right to freedom of speech.

Q: Are the blocks legitimate?

Pranesh Prakash says:

The goodness of the government's intentions seem, quite clearly in my estimation, to be unquestionable. Yet, even with the best intentions, there might be procedural illegalities and over-censorship.

There are circumstances in which freedom of speech and expression may legitimately be limited. The circumstances that existed in Bangalore could justifiably result in legitimate limitations on freedom of speech. For instance, I believe that temporary curbs — such as temporarily limiting SMSes & MMSes to a maximum of five each fifteen minutes for a period of two days — would have been helpful.

However it is unclear whether the government has exercised its powers responsibly in this circumstance. The blocking of many of the items on that list is legally questionable and morally indefensible, even while some of the items ought, in my estimation, to be removed.

If the government has blocked these sites under s.69A of the Information Technology Act ("Power to Issue Directions for Blocking for Public Access of Any Information through any Computer Resource"), the persons and intermediaries hosting the content should have been notified provided 48 hours to respond (under Rule 8 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules 2009). Even if the emergency provision (Rule 9) was used, the block issued on August 18, 2012, should have been introduced before the "Committee for Examination of Request" by August 20, 2012 (i.e., within 48 hours), and that committee should have notified the persons and intermediaries hosting the content.

Importantly, even though many of the items on that list are repugnant and do deserve (in my opinion) to be removed, ordering ISPs to block them is largely ineffectual. The people and companies hosting the material should have been asked to remove it, instead of ordering Internet service providers (ISPs) to block them. All larger sites have clear content removal policies, and encouraging communal tensions and hate speech generally wouldn't be tolerated. That this can be done without resort to the dreadful Intermediary Guidelines Rules (which were passed last year) shows that those Rules are unnecessary. It is our belief that those Rules are also unconstitutional.

Q: What is your advice for an average Facebook or Twitter user to ensure that what they are viewing is accurate (in case of morphed pictures or content)?

Apar Gupta says:

I have never had that problem with such content; I simple report it as offensive. I would appeal to internet users to question the information posted on social networks. In the days where we debate the factual biases of a press which has prescribed journalistic ethics to rely on a tweet, Facebook post or a YouTube video without scrutiny would be incredibly foolish. If a person can take a call to arms on the basis of a morphed picture then such a person deserves to win the 1 Billion Dollar Coca Cola Lottery phishing scam. 

Related links:

20% of banned hate sites put up by Hindu groups

Analysing Latest List of Blocked Sites (Communalism & Rioting Edition)  

 The rumour mills on social media

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