DEITY says 2341 URLs were blocked in 2014; refuses to reveal more

On March 9, 2015, SFLC.in requested the following information from the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY) under the Right to Information Act, 2005:

  • Number of URL-blocking orders issued by DEITY in 2012, 2013 and 2014

  • Number of URL-blocking orders issued by DEITY in 2012, 2013 and 2014 based on:

    • Requests from Government departments/agencies

    • Court orders

    • Requests from private parties

  • List of URLs blocked in 2012, 2013 and 2014, along with copies of relevant orders

  • List of URLs blocked in 2012, 2013 and 2014, whose blocking orders were reviewed by the Review Committee, along with the respective dates on which said reviews were carried out

A copy of the application can be accessed here.

In a response (dated March 23, 2015) received from DEITY, it was revealed that the following numbers of URL-blocking orders were issued in 2012, 2013 and 2014 as specified:

  • 708 (2012)

  • 1349 (2013)

  • 2341 (2014)

It was also stated in the response that "barring few numbers, all URLs were blocked on the orders of the Court" (sic).

Further, the response stated that the following numbers of URLs were unblocked pursuant to orders by the Review Committee in 2012, 2013 and 2014 as specified:

  • 4 (2012)

  • 0 (2013)

  • 32 (2014)

The identities of blocked/unblocked URLs, copies of blocking orders, and concrete statistics on URLs blocked pursuant to Government/private requests and court orders were not provided, citing Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009, which requires requests, complaints and actions relating to URL-blocking to be kept strictly confidential.

The full text of DEITY's response can be accessed here.

Rule 16, by mandating strict confidentiality in URL-blocking, shrouds India's content-blocking regime in extreme secrecy. As a result, citizens are prevented from procuring essential information such as definitive lists of blocked URLs, or reasons behind specific blocks. Even requests for such information made under the Right to Information Act are routinely turned down, notwithstanding the fact that the provisions of the Act override all conflicting provisions in any other legislation (see Section 22, RTI Act).

The Government's insistence on confidentiality assumes further intrigue, considering the Supreme Court's observations in its recent judgement in the matter of Shreya Singhal and Ors. v. Union of India. While adjudicating on the constitutional challenge to Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, the Court invited attention to several safeguards incorporated into Section 69A - one amongst them being that reasons behind blocking orders are to be recorded in writing in the orders themselves so that they may be challenged by means of writ petitions filed under Article 226 of the Constitution of India (writ jurisdiction of High Courts). However, one fails to understand how such a writ petition might be filed so long as the blocking orders are kept confidential. Rule 16 therefore renders an important safeguard in the content-blocking process ineffective.

In summation, there is an immediate need for the Government to reconsider its stance on transparency in URL-blocking. Not only does opacity make for bad governance, but it also restricts the citizens' right to receive and impart information as guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. SFLC.in has already filed an appeal regarding DEITY's refusal to part with substantial information on URL-blocking, but the need for a more comprehensive legislative change in this regard remains nevertheless.