Government blocks 32 websites to check ISIS propaganda

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jan 02, 2015 01:37 PM
The Centre has blocked 32 websites, including,, and, in an effort to curb ISIS propaganda, prompting a wave of online protests.

The article by Kim Arora was published in the Times of India on January 1, 2015. Pranesh Prakash gave his inputs.

An Indian "hacktivist" group, Anonymous India, has threatened reprisal. By Wednesday evening, however, websites that had complied with the government order to remove objectionable content had been unblocked, sources said.

A confidential department of telecom order, dated December 17, instructing all internet service licensees to block the websites appeared online on Wednesday. When contacted to verify the news, Dr Gulshan Rai, director of the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), told TOI the directions had been issued to internet service providers following a Mumbai additional chief metropolitan magistrate's November order directing the government's Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) to implement the same.

He added that Mumbai's Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) had approached the judiciary after interrogating Arif Majeed, a 23-year-old ISIS recruit from Kalyan. More recently, Bengaluru professional Mehdi Biswas was arrested for allegedly spreading ISIS propaganda on Twitter. "These websites were being used to invite youths to join ISIS. We had contacted the websites sometime back and asked for the removal of the objectionable content. At that time, our communications were ignored. Some of them have now agreed to work with the government. The websites that have complied are being unblocked," Rai told TOI.

The move met with opposition from the online community. While the tech community opposed the Github ban, others were upset about video-sharing websites like and being taken down. "By blocking vimeo and dailymotion along with other websites, India is walking in the footsteps of Pakistan," tweeted @baawraman.

The list of websites in the DoT document was heavy on large text-sharing and collaboration websites, like Github and Pastebin, popular with coders and software developers. Many objected to the blocking of entire websites instead of specific URLs hosting problematic content. However, Rai explained that individual URLs could not be blocked because of the "high mobility of content" on the websites. "It can just be removed and pasted elsewhere. There are no checks and balances," he said.

Hacktivist group Anonymous India tweeted, "One fine morning, Indian government decided to block sites like Github. Now now, it is time to wake-up. Government of India, Expect Us," a tweet from their handle @opindia_revenge said.

As questions began to be raised on social networks, BJP IT cell head Arvind Gupta tweeted, "The websites that have been blocked were based on an advisory by the Anti-Terrorism Squad, and were carrying anti-India content from ISIS. The sites that have removed objectionable content and/or cooperated with the ongoing investigations, are being unblocked."

The sustainability of counter-measures like blanket blocking to contain threats is being questioned. Prasanth Sugathan, counsel at Software Freedom and Law Center, said such a move is short-sighted. "If you block one website, terrorists can always use another one. Or they will move to using encrypted channels, peer-to-peer communication or even telephones. One can't block everything. In my opinion, such a move only inconveniences the daily users and doesn't solve the long-term purpose," said Sugathan. The sentiment was echoed by common Twitter users as well.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tweet from August 2012 condemning blanket blocking of websites was pulled out for recirculation. "As a common man, I join the protest against crackdown on freedom of speech! Have changed my DP. 'Sabko Sanmati De Bhagwan.' #GOIBlocks," Modi had tweeted on August 24, 2012.

Pranesh Prakash, policy director at Bengaluru-based Center for Internet and Society, questioned the lack of transparency around the practice of blocking websites under the Indian law. "Qn for govt: Why does the law require secrecy of web blocking orders when it doesn't allow such secrecy for books, films? #GoIBlocks," he tweeted, adding, "The 69A Rules don't allow for transparency, accountability, time-limits on blocks, etc. So easily misused by govt. + courts + individuals." The websites were blocked under section 69 A of the IT Act, 2000 and the IT (Procedure and sdafeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) rules, 2009.

Currently, the Supreme Court is in the middle of hearing a clutch of petitions challenging several IT Act provisions, including blocking and takedown of websites.