The Legal Validity of Internet Bans: Part II

Posted by Geetha Hariharan and Padmini Baruah at Oct 08, 2015 11:17 AM |
In recent months, there has been a spree of bans on access to Internet services in Indian states, for different reasons. The State governments have relied on Section 144, Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 to institute such bans. Despite a legal challenge, the Gujarat High Court found no infirmity in this exercise of power in a recent order. We argue that it is Section 69A of the Information Technology Act 2000, and the Website Blocking Rules, which set out the legal provision and procedure empowering the State to block access to the Internet (if at all it is necessary), and not Section 144, CrPC.

As we saw earlier, the Gujarat High Court held that Section 144, CrPC empowers the State apparatus to order blocking of access to data services. According to the Court, Section 69A, IT Act can be used to block certain websites, while under Section 144, CrPC, the District Magistrate can direct telecom companies like Vodafone and Airtel, who extend the facility of Internet access. In effect, the High Court agreed with the State government’s argument that the scope of Section 69A, IT Act covers only blocking of certain websites, while Section 144, CrPC grants a wider power.

This is what the Court said (para 9 of the order):

If the comparison of both the sections in the field of operations is made, barring certain minor overlapping more particularly for public order [sic], one can say that the area of operation of Section 69A is not the same as that of Section 144 of the Code. Section 69A may in a given case also be exercised for blocking certain websites, whereas under Section 144 of the Code, directions may be issued to certain persons who may be the source for extending the facility of internet access. Under the circumstances, we do not find that the contention raised on behalf of the petitioner that the resort to only Section 69A was available and exercise of power under Section 144 of the Code was unavailable, can be accepted.” (emphases ours)

We submit that the High Court’s reasoning failed to examine the scope of Section 69A, IT Act thoroughly. Section 69A does, in fact, empower the government to order blocking of access to data services, and it is a special law. Importantly, it sets forth a procedure that State governments, union territories and the Central Governments must follow to order blocks on websites or data services.

I. Special Law Prevails Over General Law

The IT Act, 2000 is a special law dealing with matters relating to the Internet, including offences and security measures. The CrPC is a general law of criminal procedure.

When a special law and a general law cover the same subject, then the special law supersedes the general law. This is a settled legal principle. Several decisions of the Supreme Court attest to this fact. To take an example, in Maya Mathew v. State of Kerala, (2010) 3 SCR 16 (18 February 2010), when there was a contention between the Special Rules for Kerala State Homoeopathy Services and the general Rules governing state and subordinate services. The Supreme Court held that when a special law and a general law both govern a matter, the Court should try to interpret them harmoniously as far as possible. But if the intention of the legislature is that one law should prevail over another, and this intention is made clear expressly or impliedly, then the Court should give effect to this intention.

On the basis of this principle, let’s take a look at the IT Act, 2000. Section 81, IT Act expressly states that the provisions of the IT Act shall have overriding effect, notwithstanding anything inconsistent with any other law in force. Moreover, in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the IT (Amendment) Bill, 2006, the legislature clearly notes that amendments inserting offences and security measures into the IT Act are necessary given the proliferation of the Internet and e-transactions, and the rising number of offences. These indicate expressly the legislature’s intention for the IT Act to prevail over general laws like the CrPC in matters relating to the Internet.

Now, we will examine whether the IT Act empowers the Central and State governments to carry out complete blocks on access to the Internet or data services, in the event of emergencies. If the IT Act does cover such a situation, then the CrPC should not be used to block data services. Instead, the IT Act and its Rules should be invoked.

II. Section 69A, IT Act Allows Blocks on Internet Access

Section 69A(1), IT Act says:

“Where the Central Government or any of its officer specially authorised by it in this behalf is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above, it may subject to the provisions of sub-section (2) for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct any agency of the Government or intermediary to block for access by the public or cause to be blocked for access by the public any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource.” (emphasis ours)

Essentially, Section 69A says that the government can block (or cause to be blocked) for access by the public, any information generated, transmitted, etc. in any computer resource, if the government is satisfied that such a measure is in the interests of public order.

Does this section allow the government to institute bans on Internet access in Gujarat? To determine this, we will examine each underlined term from above.

Access: Section 2(1)(a), IT Act defines access as “...gaining entry into, instructing or communicating with… resources of a computer, computer system or computer network”.

Computer resource: Section 2(1)(k), IT Act defines computer resource as “computer, computer system, computer network...”

Information: Section 2(1)(v), IT Act defines information as “includes… data, message, text, images, sound, voice...”

So ‘blocking for access’ under Section 69A includes preventing gaining entry or communicating with the resources of a computer, computer system or computer network, and it includes blocking communication of data, message, text, images, sound, etc. Now two questions arise:

(1) Do 2G and 3G services, broadband and Wifi fall within the definition of ‘computer network’?

Computer network: Section 2(1)(j), IT Act defines computer network as “inter-connection of one or more computers or computer systems or communication device…” by “...use of satellite, microwave, terrestrial line, wire, wireless or other communication media”.

(2) Do mobile phones that can connect to the Internet (we say smartphones for simplicity) qualify as fall within the definition of ‘computer resource’?

Communication device: Section 2(1)(ha), IT Act defines communication device as “cell phones, personal digital assistance or combination of both or any other device used to communicate, send or transmit any text, video, audio or image”.

So a cell phone is a communication device. A computer network is an inter-connection of communication devices by wire or wireless connections. A computer network is a computer resource also. Blocking of access under Section 69A, IT Act includes, therefore, gaining entry into or communicating with the resources of a computer network, which is an interconnection of communication devices, including smartphones. Add to this, the fact that any information (data, message, text, images, sound, voice) can be blocked, and the conclusion seems clear.

The power to block access to Internet services (including data services) can be found within Section 69A, IT Act itself, the special law enacted to cover matters relating to the Internet. Not only this, the IT Act envisages emergency situations when blocking powers may need to be invoked.

III. Section 69A Permits Blocking in Emergency Situations

Section 69A, IT Act doesn’t act in isolation. The Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (“Blocking Rules”) operate together with Section 69A(1).

Rule 9 of the Blocking Rules deals with blocking of information in cases of emergency. It says that in cases of emergency, when “no delay is acceptable”, the Designated Officer (DO) shall examine the request for blocking. If it is within the scope of Section 69A(1) (i.e., within the grounds of public order, etc.), then the DO can submit the request to the Secretary, Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY). If the Secretary is satisfied of the need to block during the emergency, then he may issue a reasoned order for blocking, in writing as an interim measure. The intermediaries do not need to be heard in such a situation.

After a blocking order is issued during an urgent situation, the DO must bring the blocking request to the Committee for Examination of Request constituted under Rule 7, Blocking Rules. There is also a review process, by a Review Committee that meets every two months to evaluate whether blocking directions are in compliance with Section 69A(1) [Rule 14].

We submit, therefore, that the Gujarat High Court erred in holding that Section 144, CrPC is the correct legal provision to enable Internet bans. Not only does Section 69A, IT Act cover blocking of access to Internet services, but it also envisages blocking in emergency situations. As a special law for matters surrounding the Internet, Section 69A should prevail over the general law provision of Section 144, CrPC.

 

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Pranesh Prakash, Japreet Grewal, Sahana Manjesh and Sindhu Manjesh for their invaluable inputs in clarifying arguments and niggling details for these two posts.


Geetha Hariharan is a Programme Officer with Centre for Internet & Society. Padmini Baruah is in her final year of law at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore (NLSIU) and is an intern at CIS.

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