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RTI Application to BSNL for the list of websites blocked in India

Posted by Gurshabad Grover at May 09, 2019 09:40 AM |
A Right to Information (RTI) request to a public company operating as an ISP for the list of websites and URLs blocked in India, and copies of such blocking orders issued by the Government of India.

Background

The Government of India draws powers from Section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act and the rules issued under it to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block websites and URLs for users. Several experts have questioned the constitutionality of the process laid out in the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (hereinafter, “the rules”) [1] since Rule 16 in the regulations allows blocking of websites by the Government and ISPs in secrecy, as it mandates all such orders to be maintained confidentially.

Thus, the law sets up a structure where it is impossible to know the complete list of websites blocked in India and the reasons thereof. Civil society and individual efforts have repeatedly failed to obtain this list. For instance, the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), in August 2017, asked the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) for the number and list of websites and URLs that are blocked in India. In response, MeitY revealed the number of blocked websites and URLs: 11,422. MeitY refused to share the list of websites blocked by Government orders citing the aforementioned confidentiality provision in the rules (and subsequently citing national security when MeitY’s reply was appealed against by SFLC). In 2017, researchers at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) contacted five ISPs, all of which refused to share information about website blocking requests.

 

Application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act

In a more recent request filed by under the Right to Information (RTI) Act in June 2018, Akash Sriram (who worked at the Centre for Internet and Society) tried to obtain this information from Bharat Sanchar Nagam Limited (BSNL), a public company which operates as an ISP.
 
The text of the request of the RTI request is reproduced here:
To
Manohar Lal, DGM(Cordn), Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited
Room No. 306, Bharat Sanchar Bhawan, H.C.Mathur Lane
Janpath, New Delhi, PIN 110001

Subject: Seeking of Information under RTI Act 2005

Sir,
Kindly arrange to provide the following information under the provisions of RTI Act:

  • What are the names and URLs of websites currently blocked by government notification in India?
  • Please provide copies of blocking orders issued by the Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Communications and other competent authorities to block such websites.

Thanking you
Yours faithfully

Akash Sriram
Centre for Internet and Society
 
BSNL refused to respond to the request citing sections 8(e) and 8(g) of the RTI Act. Their response is reproduced below.
 
The Information sought vide above reference cannot be disclosed vide clause 8(e) and 8(g) of the RTI act which states.

"8(e) - Information, available to a person in his fiduciary relationship, unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information"

“8(g) - Information, the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes"

This is issued with the approval of competent authority.
 
A PDF of the response can be accessed here.
 
[1] Note that in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the rules.

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