Revealed: MeitY blocked 6096 URLs and 347 applications in 2021 but held less than 40 hearings

tl;dr

In March 2022, we filed a right to information (‘RTI’) application with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (‘MeitY’) seeking statistical information on the directions it issued to block content on the internet. MeitY’s reply reveals that it blocked 6096 URLs and 347 applications in 2021. However, the committee responsible for recommending these directions only conducted 39 meetings in 2021. This means that on average the committee recommended blocking 166 URLs/applications in every meeting! This suggests that the committee does not apply its mind to the request for blocking it receives and/or it does not hear the individuals whose content they recommend should be blocked.

Why should you care?

By its very nature, a blocking order or a content takedown action impacts your fundamental right to speech. When the Union Government decides to block your content, you want such blocking to be done with due process and proper application of mind. From MeitY’s response, it does not appear that this is possible under the government’s current approach.

IFF’s RTI request

In March 2022, we filed a right to information application with MeitY seeking statistical information regarding the orders they have issued under the Blocking Rules. Copies of our request and the response we received are available here and here. In our RTI, amongst other things, we asked MeitY several questions, including to:

  1. provide the total number of directions issued under the blocking rules in 2021;
  2. provide the total number of hearings conducted in 2021 by the committee which consists of government officials from MeitY, Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (‘Committee’);
  3. provide the total number of individuals that appeared before the Committee in 2021; and
  4. provide the total number of requests for blocking of content received from Ministries of Union Government, State Governments and any agencies of the Union Government (‘Organisations’).

MeitY in their response stated that they blocked 6096 URLs and 347 mobile applications in 2021. They also stated that the Committee conducted 39 hearings in 2021 but it did not maintain data regarding the total number of individuals that appeared before the Committee. Lastly, MeitY refused to provide data regarding the total number of blocking requests they received from Organisations.

MeitY’s response reveals a host of problems

  1. Non-application of mind: MeitY blocked 6096 URLs and 347 mobile applications in 2021 but the Committee only conducted 39 meetings which means that on average the committee recommended blocking 166 URLs/applications in each meeting. This suggests that the Committee does not apply its mind to the request for blocking it receives before it recommends blocking of content.
  2. Lack of hearings: Though MeitY has not specifically admitted it, their response strongly indicates that the Committee does not grant hearings to every individual whose content they recommend should be blocked. In fact, we specifically asked MeitY to provide us with the total number of individuals who have appeared before the Committee. In response, they stated that they do not maintain such data and that intermediaries ‘generally attend almost all the meetings’. It appears that MeitY believes that it is sufficient for them to either grant a hearing either to the content creator or to the platform which hosted their content. As explained below, this is incorrect.
  3. Non-compliance with Supreme Court directions: If the Committee is indeed not hearing individual content creators, they are violating the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India where it held that an originator of content must be provided with a hearing before their content is blocked. The only circumstance where MeitY can choose to not grant a hearing is when they cannot identify the creator of the content. These hearings are important because if one doesn’t even know why their speech is being restricted by the government, it is impossible for them to challenge the blocking and that is a serious violation of principles of natural justice.
  4. Continued opacity: MeitY has refused to share the total number of requests it received from Nodal Officers of Organisations for blocking content. They have relied upon Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules to not provide us with this information. Rule 16 states that strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the requests and complaints received and action taken thereof. The purpose of this rule is to ensure the anonymity of those who raise complaints against speech on the internet, not to prohibit the government from sharing anonymous statistical data such as the number of blocking requests MeitY received from Organisations. Such information when disclosed will only increase transparency. This is not the first time MeitY has relied upon Rule 16 to arbitrarily deny information. MeitY has relied on Rule 16 to deny information to Mr. Tanul Thakur in respect of his satirical website Dowry Calculator, and also to deny Mr. Sushant Singh information about the blocking of his Twitter account.

Rule 8 requires MeitY to hear the content creators

Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (‘IT Act’) empowers the Union Government to direct blocking of content on the internet in specified enumerated circumstances. The Blocking Rules provide the procedure which the Union Government needs to follow to block content under Section 69A of the IT Act.

The Blocking Rules state that Organisations may raise requests with an officer at MeitY for blocking of content on the internet (Rule 6). The officer must place these requests before the Committee (Rule 7). The Committee has an obligation to identify the person or the intermediary whose content may be blocked and give them an opportunity of appearing before them [Rule 8(1)]. The Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India clarified this rule and held that if MeitY is able to identify the originator of the content, they must be heard (Paragraph 115).

After granting them a hearing, the Committee can make a recommendation to the Secretary, Department of Information Technology, MeitY (‘Competent Authority’) to block the content if it needs to be blocked in accordance with Section 69A [Rule 8(4)].  Thereafter, the Competent Authority can direct intermediaries such as Facebook or Twitter to block the content [Rule 8(6)].

As is evident from the Rules, content creators must be heard before their content is blocked but MeitY’s response strongly indicates that the Committee neither provides a hearing nor applies its mind before it recommends the Competent Authority to block content.

Conclusion

MeitY’s response to our RTI application is not satisfactory. The fact that MeitY blocked  6096 URLs and 347 applications when the Committee met only 39 times demonstrates the fault-lines in the blocking process. Moreover, the misplaced reliance on Rule 16 to deny anonymous statistical information showcases the insistence of MeitY to remain opaque regarding the blocking process. We will continue to file RTIs and engage in public advocacy and strategic litigation to ensure that speech is curtailed on the internet only in accordance with Part III of the Constitution.

Think there are more questions about Blocking Orders we should ask MeitY? Want to seek information from MeitY about your blocked account/post? Let us know!

Important Documents

  1. Writ Petition filed on behalf of Tanul Thakur (link).
  2. Previous post titled ‘MeitY blocks information about Actor Sushant Singh’s account takedown’ (link)
  3. Previous post titled ‘MeitY defends blocking of satirical Dowry Calculator website #FreeToMeme’ (link)
  4. Previous post titled ‘Delhi High Court calls for case files and asks MeitY to consider the hearing creator of satirical Dowry Calculator on website blocking’ (link)