Mr Tanul Thakur's satirical website, dowrycalculator.com was banned by an order of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (‘MeitY’) without providing him a hearing or even a copy of the ban order. Mr Thakur challenged this censorship action before the Delhi High Court. On 11th May 2022, the Court extensively heard Advocate Vrinda Bhandari, who represented Mr Thakur, and directed MeitY to provide Mr Thakur a copy of the ban order and a post-decisional hearing under the Information Technology (Procedure and safeguards for blocking of Access of Information by public) Rules, 2009 (“Blocking Rules, 2009”). The order is significant because MeitY never publishes its censorship orders and rarely, if ever, provides a hearing. IFF has provided legal assistance to Mr Thakur in the proceedings before the Delhi HC.
Why should you care?
This is the first time a MeitY censorship order, or a hearing before MeitY, will be provided to a content creator. This order is crucial in the fight to bring transparency in the censorship process and affix accountability towards the government. MeitY consistently relies on Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009 to claim confidentiality and deny these requests. MeitY has never published or disclosed its orders in the past, and has rarely, if ever, provided a hearing to the creator whose content is censored.
This Disclosure is a massive first step towards transparency in censorship
Mr. Thakur was not informed of any reasons or provided notice before his website was banned in India. With countless websites being censored by the government under the Blocking Rules, 2009 in an opaque manner, this writ petition mounted an important challenge to protect online freedom of speech and expression. With the original order being provided, it allows the owner of a website an opportunity to know the reasons for censorship and either rectify the errors or challenge the order on substantive and/or procedural grounds at the hearing.
As mentioned in a previous post, RTI applications seeking the original order and complaint had been rejected and this order by the Division Bench of Justices Manmohan and Dinesh Kumar Sharma is a crucial step in preventing the blanket blocking of websites without sufficient notice or orders being provided.
Mr. Thakur, owner of the banned website Dowry Calculator said,
“It's a heartening move because it removes the frustrating veil of opacity from the MEITY's order - especially because it's happened for the first time. I remain thankful, as always, to the Internet Freedom Foundation for its remarkable support and persistence.”
Humour is not illegal
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.”
Mr. Thakur was not even given an opportunity to explain any of this to MeitY before facing censorship, since MeitY refused (even in RTI) to provide him a copy of the blocking order, or any notice or hearing.
MeitY routinely mis-applies Rule 16 of Blocking Rules
Mr. Thakur’s Petition before the Delhi High Court seeks the restoration of his banned website and also prays that this kind of mis-application of Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009 by MeitY is declared unconstitutional to the extent that it denies notice and hearing to owners, creators, developers and curators of censored content. Rule 16 contains a confidentiality requirement which is routinely cited by MeitY to deny access to all of its censorship orders. This is actually in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. In Shreya Singhal, the Supreme Court held that if the originator of information can be identified, then the MeitY must provide a hearing to the originator before blocking access to that information. Only on the basis of these kinds of procedural safeguards was the constitutionality of the Blocking Rules upheld.
At the last date of hearing, on 21.03.2022, the Delhi High Court directed MeitY’s counsel to seek instructions from MeitY on whether it would consider providing a post-decisional hearing to Mr. Thakur. Subsequently, on 11.05.2022, the Delhi High Court has now directed the respondents to provide this post-decisional hearing before the Committee constituted under the Blocking Rules, 2009. MeitY has been directed to furnish a copy of the Committee’s report to the Court and the petitioner within a period of 4 weeks from the hearing.
Significantly, the Delhi High Court has directed MeitY to provide to the Petitioner a copy of the original blocking order issued under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and Blocking Rules, 2009 before the post-decisional hearing.
Mr. Thakur was represented by Advocate Vrinda Bhandari who were assisted by Advocates Abhinav Sekhri, Tanmay Singh, Krishnesh Bapat, Anandita Mishra. Amala Dasarathi and Natasha Maheshwari. Vrinda Bhandari argued for the Petitioner to establish the satirical nature of the website and the procedural lapses in the blocking of the website by the MeitY.
We thank Mr. Thakur for taking the initiative to approach the Delhi High Court and providing us the opportunity of offering him legal assistance. Mr. Thakur’s challenge is crucial in the fight to bring transparency in the censorship process and affix accountability towards the government when it bans a website, or orders your tweets to be deleted, or orders your videos to be taken down.
The post-decisional hearing before MeitY’s Committee is on 23rd May, 2022. We will be present there to explain to MeitY why Dowry Calculator does not meet the criteria required under the law for a ban.
The next date of hearing before the Delhi High Court is 14th September, 2022, where we will have an opportunity to present the post-decisional order to the Court. We will keep you updated!
- Order of the Delhi High Court dated 11th May 2022 in Tanul Thakur v. Union of India (link)
- Order of the Delhi High Court dated 21st March 2022 in Tanul Thakur v. Union of India (link)
- Writ Petition filed on behalf of Tanul Thakur (link)
- Previous post titled ‘Delhi High Court calls for case files and asks MeitY to consider hearing creator of satirical Dowry Calculator on website blocking #WhatTheBlock’ (link)
- Previous post titled ‘Delhi HC issues notice to the government for blocking satirical Dowry Calculator website’ (link)
- Previous post titled ‘MeitY defends blocking of satirical Dowry Calculator website #FreeToMeme’ (link)