Delhi High Court issues notice in the blocking case of satirical website

tl;dr

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 December 5, 2019. On May 11 2022, the Court 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”). Subsequent to the post-decisional hearing, Mr. Thakur was informed that MeitY decided to continue its ban on his website. The Delhi High Court requested that Mr. Thakur should file a fresh writ petition including a challenge to MeitY’s 2022 decision to continue blocking of the website.  Mr. Thakur with the legal assistance of IFF, has filed a writ petition before the Delhi High Court challenging the same. The matter was heard on January 23, 2023 and the court was pleased to issue notice in the matter.

Why should you care?

The Dowry Calculator is a satirical tool that pokes fun at the system of dowry, a harmful patriarchal practice that causes the death of a woman every hour in India (according to NCRB records) and is certainly deserving of satirical attention. However, the website was blocked by the Union of India (again), which mistakenly believed that the Dowry Calculator promotes and endorses the practice of dowry. Without knowledge of the reasoning behind a government's restriction of speech, it becomes extremely difficult for an individual to contest the blocking. The ongoing proceedings before the Delhi High Court have the potential to establish a significant principle on free speech, taking these factors into account.

Background

Mr. Tanul Thakur, a journalist and film critic by profession, created a website called the Dowry Calculator, a satirical attempt at calling out the socially-entrenched practice of dowry. The entire website is a clear attempt at making fun of families that ask for dowry, and holding up a mirror up to the absurdity of the system of dowry.

Nevertheless, the website was blocked in September 2018, and remains blocked. The blocking was done in a manner completely contravening prescribed legal procedure. Concerningly, the Union of India did not even provide Mr. Thakur a notice, an opportunity to be heard or even a copy of the blocking order. Moreover, when Mr. Thakur filed an RTI to obtain the blocking order, so that he could understand why his website was blocked, MeitY refused and cited a confidentiality provision contained in Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009.

It was on this basis that Mr. Thakur, with the legal assistance of IFF, has approached the Delhi High Court on December, 05 2019 asking for a copy of his blocking order as one of his prayers in WP(C) 13037 of 2019. MeitY consistently relied on Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009 to claim confidentiality and deny publishing of blocking order requests. It was argued before the court that the Union was relying on an incorrect interpretation of Rule 16 of the Blocking Orders, 2009 and that any originator of content must be provided a hearing before their content is blocked by the Union of India and a copy of the blocking order in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India.

The Delhi High Court agreed with Mr. Thakur and ordered MeitY on May 11, 2022 to share a copy of the blocking order and provide a post decisional hearing. Mr. Thakur received a copy of his blocking order and was provided an opportunity to defend his website before the Inter Ministerial Committee constituted by MeitY on May 23, 2022. Post the hearing, Mr. Thakur was informed by MeitY that  www.dowrycalculator.com will remain blocked. Despite being aware that the Union of India is liable to provide a copy of the blocking order, MeitY has chosen not to provide a copy yet again.

The Delhi High Court passed an order stating that Mr. Thakur should withdraw WP(C) 13037 of 2019 and file a fresh writ petition including a challenge to MeitY’s 2022 decision to continue blocking Mr. Thakur’s website.  Mr. Thakur has now filed a writ petition on January 17, 2023 before the Delhi High Court challenging the 2022 and 2018 blocking orders.

Recent proceedings before the Delhi High Court

The case came up for hearing on January 23, 2023, before Justice Prathiba M. Singh in the Delhi High Court. Senior Counsel Siddharth Aggarwal argued on the behalf of Mr. Thakur and explained to the court that the website is purely satirical in nature. He took the court through the language used on the website itself along with the media coverage that discussed the website, to show that the website evidently was an attempt at satire and was also publicly received as a satirical take on the social evil of dowry. Mr. Aggarwal further submitted that websites such as Dowry Calculator initiates important conversation around the social evils of dowry and can help us better address the issue as a society. The Court was satisfied that this matter required further notice and was pleased to issue notice in this matter. The next date of hearing in the case is May 16, 2023 and we will update you after the hearing.

Mr. Thakur was represented by Senior Advocate Siddharth Aggarwal, and IFF’s lawyers Vrinda Bhandari, Abhinav Sekhri, Tanmay Singh, Ramya Dronamraju and Gayatri Malhotra. We thank Mr. Thakur for taking the initiative to approach the Delhi High Court on this important aspect of free speech and providing us with the opportunity of offering him legal assistance.

The petition brings to light significant legal and social issues related to free speech and the place of speech that may cause discomfort, such as satire. It is crucial for legal action to be taken if governments have the power to indefinitely shut down websites, as has occurred with the Dowry Calculator.

  1. Writ Petition filed by Mr. Tanul Thakur challenging the ban to his website. (link)
  2. Order of the Delhi High Court dated 28.11.2022 in WP 13037 of 2019. (link)
  3. Previous post titled "Delhi HC orders MeitY to give copy of ban order and hearing to Mr Tanul Thakur for banning his website". (link)