Blocking of satirical dowry calculator website prompts us to take action! #WhatTheBlock #SaveTheInternet

Highlights

  • Background: Last week, we learnt about a satirical website, www.dowrycalculator.com being blocked by the DoT.  To address such unjustified and opaque website blocking, we have filed an RTI application seeking reasons for blocking of this particular website and made a representation to MEITY for public disclosure of all blocking orders.
  • Need for transparency: The existing Blocking Rules need urgent reform because they classify website blocking orders as confidential and deny aggrieved internet users an opportunity to challenge these orders before a court of law.

The curious case of the block on Dowry Calculator

Last week, we learnt through Twitter (hat tip to Rohan Verma who brought this to our notice) that the Department of Telecom has blocked access to www.dowrycalculator.com. Dowry Calculator is a satirical website which allows people to calculate how much dowry a man would receive based on his age, caste, profession, salary, alma mater, height, skin colour etc. These criteria are the denominators of an asymmetric patriarchal system which perpetuates the social evil of dowry.

Screenshot of contents of www.dowrycalculator.com

Since then, we have monitored the twitter thread where some preliminary inferences from crowdsourced reports reveal that the blocking is inconsistently applied across ISPs in India.  While Reliance Jio has blocked the website, it is still available through Airtel (though it is inaccessible on our connection on Airtel Delhi) and Vodafone.

The reasons for blocking the website are not known because the web page merely shows a standard notice stating that, “the URL has been blocked pursuant to direction of the Department of Telecom. Please contact administrator for more information”. This kind of inconsistency and opacity has now become characteristic of India’s website blocking regime. We have previously written about this trend of ISPs blocking not merely porn but also popular websites like Reddit, Sound Cloud and Telegram, and you can read more about it here.

[Screenshot of the standardized post-blocking notice displayed on www.dowrycalculator.com

Poking fun at patriarchy is not illegal

Dowry Calculator is the brain-child of journalist, Tanul Thakur, and this is not the first time it has been in the eye of the storm. In May 2018, Jyotiraditya Scindia tweeted about the website and urged the Ministry of Woman and Child Development and the Prime Minister’s Office to take action against it. This, in turn, prompted Menaka Gandhi to request Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) to block the website. Even upon learning that it was a satirical website intended to mock men who demand dowry, Shri Jyotiraditya Scindia stuck to his stance. He argued that people might not realize it was satire and such serious problems should not be made the subject of a joke. You can read more about it here.

Tweet by Jyotiraditya Scindia after learning that www.dowrycalculator.com was a satirical website

Satire is one of the most effective ways of holding up a mirror to society and speaking truth to power. It is often provocative and forces uncomfortable social conversations. The content on Dowry Calculator makes its satirical nature abundantly clear to anyone who goes beyond the surface and actually attempts to use it. For instance, when one tries to pick a skin colour, the options include ‘Pitch Black (Not visible on a Moonless night)’ and ‘Wheatish (Almost white. Would need some fair n Lovely)’.The website also states that it is “dedicated to all the match-making aunties of India.” While the content and framing of dowrycalculator.com, such as the absence of clearer labelling is a matter of debate, certainly it does not call for legal and technical censorship.

In light of all these elements which ridicule dowry seeking grooms and their families, it is difficult to see how any reasonable person who actually uses the website will believe that it promotes dowry. Unfortunately, Dowry Calculator has become the latest victim of the government’s outrage driven and unaccountable website blocking practices.

Opaque legal framework for website blocking

To give you a background, in India, website blocking is governed by Section 69A of the IT Act and IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009.

Section 69A empowers the Central Government to block websites in the interest of (i) sovereignty and integrity of India, (ii) defence of India, (iii) security of the State, (iv) friendly relations with foreign States (iv) public order, and (v) for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above. In the present case, the government has presumably relied on ground (v) but the idea that www.dowrycalculator.com incites men to illegally demand dowry is preposterous. However, ISPs are unlikely to resist the enforcement of such unreasonable blocking orders because non-compliance can be punished with up to 7 years imprisonment and/or fine.

Section 69A is supplemented by the Blocking Rules which prescribe the procedure to be followed for blocking websites. The Blocking Rules establish a Committee for Examination of Request which is supposed to determine whether a website is hosting content prohibited by Section 69A.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Section 69A and the Blocking Rules in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (WP No. 167 of 2012). However, its decision was heavily motivated by the provision for pre-decisional hearing present in the Blocking Rules. Theoretically, the Blocking Rules comply with principles of natural justice because reasonable efforts must be made to contact the author of the website and the intermediary hosting the website, and they should be given an opportunity to make a representation before the Committee. However, in practice, authors are almost never given an opportunity to present their case before the Committee.  

In Shreya Singhal, the Supreme Court directed the Committee to pass written orders stating reasons, so that any aggrieved person may challenge the order by filing a writ petition. However, Rule 16 states that “Strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the requests and complaints received and actions taken thereof.” Due to this confidentiality clause, any knowledge of the blocking order is limited to intermediaries who prioritize their business interests over civil liberties of citizens. Since the blocking orders and the minutes of the meetings of the Committee are confidential, RTI applications are either denied or provide woefully incomplete information.  Therefore, filing writ petitions to challenge unjustified blocking of a website is practically impossible.  

Website blocking is also a violation of net neutrality, especially after the Department of Telecom (DoT) amended the license terms of ISPs to specifically include blocking as a discriminatory practice. According to the license terms, any blocking by ISPs must be proportionate, transient and transparent, and the existing state of affairs do not satisfy any of these requirements. You can read more about how website blocking violates net neutrality here.

How do we make blocking of websites a more accountable process?

Website blocking violates constitutional rights of the public at large because the right to freedom of speech and expression includes the viewer’s right to access information. At IFF, we have taken several steps to reform this process.

  • First, we have filed an RTI with the DoT enquiring about reasons for blocking www.dowrycalculator.com and a copy of the order directing the same. However, because of Rule 16, we are not too optimistic about our RTI query being answered.
  • Second, we have relaunched Save the Internet because preserving net neutrality requires constant vigilance. We have compiled a large crowd sourced database of website blocking and we will be using this data for future advocacy. Through a formal representation, we have already requested the DoT to investigate these crowd sourced reports of unjustified blocking. You can read more about our representation regarding website blocking and lack of an enforcement structure for net neutrality here.
  • Finally, we have made a representation to MEITY and sought deletion of the confidentiality requirement under Rule 16 because it is inconsistent with Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, the Right to Information Act 2005, the judgement of the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal, and the amended terms of the Unified License granted to ISPs.

We will continue engaging with MEITY and other branches of government till we achieve our goal of ensuring transparency in the website blocking process.

Important Links:

  1. Copy of representation sent to MEITY [link]
  2. Copy of RTI filed seeking order blocking Dowry Calculator [link]

If like us, you're also tired of your favourite websites being blocked for no rhyme or reason, please consider supporting our work. You can make a huge difference even through a small contribution! Become an IFF member today.