Draconian law used to silence green websites

Government puts on hold sites campaigning against dilution of environmental impact rules
Last Updated 17 August 2021, 07:06 IST

Three environmental websites that have a pan-india presence have been blocked on government orders through a rarely seen method.

In the last week of June, the websites of Let India Breathe, There is No Earth B and Fridays For Future suddenly became inaccessible.

Yash Marwah, volunteer with Let India Breathe, says the blocking came to the group’s notice on June 29.

“We had about 50,000 hits that day so we initially thought it was because of the heavy traffic and let it go,” he says.

But on July 4, when the group contacted domain registrar GoDaddy, it was told the site had been withheld by the .in registry, which comes under the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI).

Gurshabad Grover, research manager at the The Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, says such a block, called domain hold, is rare.

“In my two years of studying and tracking sites that are being blocked, this is the first time I’ve come across it,” he says.

He adds that NIXI has mentioned that they've received several such orders and those bans seem to have flown under the radar. “They might have been hoping this would too,” he says.

Let India Breathe reached out to the Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group based in New Delhi, for help.

Apar Gupta, executive director of the foundation, says the block is unprecedented.

“We first sent a legal notice to NIXI. Since there was no response from them within two days, we followed it up with an RTI petition. We are yet to receive any clarification,” he says.

Gurshabad says that they might never receive a reason. “The legislation in the matter is Section 69A in The Information Technology Act has a confidentiality clause. The government nor the bodies they instruct in the matter are obliged to reveal information on why a site is blocked,” he explains.

What’s their offence?

The groups believe their vocal stance against the government’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) draft policy was the reason.

“The movement against the draft was the most obvious common thread. While we can’t say for sure, we believe the authorities are trying to stifle our voices,” says Yash.

Gupta sees a more chilling motive. “This blocking seems like a tactic to silence young environmentally conscious citizens through intimidation. Their safety and security must be priority,” he says.

What's this law?

The Environmental Impact Assessment Draft, proposed by the central government, has run into opposition from environmental activists. The draft proposes a dilution of the permission process for industrial activity.
Among the various changes, the most notable is that an industrial project can start first and get an EIA clearance later. Environmental groups fear this will result in destruction of green habitats and eviction of indigenous human settlements.

Advocacy groups, like the ones blacked out, had been hosting petitions and draft emails to send to the authorities concerned

What is NIXI?

The National Internet Exchange of India controls domains that end with .in as per an understanding with the Central government.

“It is the ledger keeper for all these domains and maintains a record of who owns which website. It also enters into contracts with service providers like BigRock and GoDaddy who then sell domains to users,” explains Apar Gupta, executive director of The Internet Freedom Foundation.

What is a domain hold?

When you try to access a site blocked by the government, you get a message saying it has been blocked on the orders of the Department of Telecommunication.

But when it is blocked by the National Internet Exchange of India, you get a message that the server is not found.

“Media reports say NIXI got a request from another government body. This renders websites inaccessible completely,” Apar says.

The former method directs Internet service providers to block access, which means the site still exists and can be accessed outside India.

“In this case, NIXI as registrar makes it inaccessible from anywhere in the world,” he explains.

‘Law is murky’

Gurshabad Grover, research manager at the The Centre for Internet & Society (CIS), says law that allows blocking of websites is murky.

“Section 69A in The Information Technology Act has various problems--- It has a confidentiality obligation, it only requires review from the members of the central government, and content creators don’t get a hearing, even though the Supreme Court has passed judgments saying they should,” he says.

CIS has been collecting a list of websites blocked over the past year and the number exceeds 10,000, some related to separatist movements.

The law is wrong according to both Constitutional ideals and as it is arbitrary. It gives sweeping powers, with no accountability.

(Published 21 July 2020, 15:03 IST)

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