New Delhi: In 2020, the Modi government issued 27 orders to block apps, websites, IP addresses and online domains, according to information accessed by ThePrint. These covered 100 websites, 177 apps, 1,364 online domains, and 157 internet protocol (IP) addresses.
All but one of the 27 orders invoked Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, which empowers the central government to block online content for reasons like security of the state, maintaining public order, and to prevent incitement of related offences. Apart from these, the government issued three unblock orders.
The orders, dated between 13 January and 9 October 2020, were issued to internet service providers by the telecom department.
Two insiders shared the 30 orders (to both block and unblock online content) with ThePrint.
While the bulk of the government’s blocking directives in 2020 dealt with the bar imposed on 177 Chinese apps amid the Ladakh stand-off, portals associated with the “Sikh News” website Sikh Siyasat found a mention in four orders.
The orders also sought to bar a site named Khabardarpunjab.tv. The website appears to be linked to the US-based radical group Sikhs For Justice, which was declared an “unlawful organisation” by the government in 2019 for alleged anti-national activities. The order pertaining to the site was issued 3 July 2020.
When the government seeks to bar/unbar a certain app or website, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) typically sends the order to the telecom department, which then emails them to all the internet service providers (ISPs).
This is because internet service providers fall under the purview of the telecom department.
A few of the blocking orders issued last year invoked the emergency power granted to the IT Secretary by the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009, laid down under the IT Act.
The rules also allow the IT Secretary to — “in a case of emergency”, as an interim measure — order the blocking of access to online content “without giving” the platform in question “an opportunity of hearing”.
This provision hit the headlines in recent weeks because the newly-instituted Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, allow the Information & Broadcasting Secretary the same power with respect to publishers of news and online curated content (OTT platforms).
What was blocked in 2020
A total of 177 Chinese apps, including the vastly popular TikTok, were blocked by the Modi government last year on the grounds of national security. The orders came as Chinese aggression in Ladakh triggered a months-long stand-off that only began to ease earlier this year.
The first round of bans was enforced through two orders issued on 30 June that cited the “emergency clause” of Section 69A.
The first order blocked 35 apps, including TikTok, while the second blocked another 24.
The next round came in September, when orders issued on 1 and 2 September blocked another 118 Chinese apps.
Each app can have multiple IP addresses and domains linked to it. While an IP address expresses a website’s location in numbers, a domain name does so in words.
The IP addresses and online domains blocked by the government in 2020 were the ones associated with these apps.
To block 59 apps, approximately 157 IP addresses were ordered blocked. For the second round, 1,364 online domains were blocked.
Another “emergency blocking order” was issued in March 2020, aimed at the website of an organisation — Students Against Hindutva Ideology (SAHI) — encouraging US university students to stand against alleged discrimination of Muslims under the Modi government. The organisation has been covered by Teen Vogue. The order mentions the website “www.holiagainsthindutva.com”, which redirects visitors to the SAHI portal.
As of 14 March 2021, the site is accessible in India.
Block on Sikh Siyasat
Four orders issued in 2020 pertained to portals associated with Sikh Siyasat. Two of these orders were issued in June, a month that marks the anniversary of the 1984 Operation Bluestar, the Army-led siege on the Golden Temple to flush out Sikh militants holed up in the shrine.
Sikhsiyasat.net was blocked on 5 June 2020. An order issued on 16 June referred to the website again, but only appeared to reiterate that the block was to last until 10 June. On 3 July 2020, Sikhsiyasat.net and Sikhsiyasat.info were ordered blocked.
The following month, on 21 August 2020, Sikhsiyasat.com was ordered blocked.
Currently, all SikhSiyasat sites are partially or completely inaccessible in India.
On 3 June, a reminder order sought to reiterate a block on sites that included terms like “Yes 2 Khalistan”, “Referendum 2020”, and “Sikhs for Justice”. The order noted that the sites remained accessible despite an earlier block directive.
Unlike other block orders, the order said, “Further, there may be frequent and urgent requirement of blocking of websites under Section 69A in the near future. Accordingly, all the TSPs (telecom service providers)/internet service providers are intimated in advance to allocate adequate resources at least up to 7 June 2020 for immediate compliance of all such orders.”
No reason was cited for this request.
Other sites blocked include one that seeks to pay tribute to those who died in the “1984 June Battle of Amritsar”, an apparent reference to Operation Bluestar, and the anti-Sikh riots later the same year. The order was issued on 27 May 2020 and adds, unlike other orders, that the site should be blocked “within 24 hours”.
Another order, dated 15 July, sought to target Islamist preacher Zakir Naik’s website. As of 14 March this year, the site could be accessed by ThePrint.
An order dated 26 June sought to block a site that is believed to belong to an international society — Kashmir Civitas. The body claims to be committed to the “socio-political emancipation… of Kashmir”. Twitter has suspended its account @civitaskashmir as well.
WeTransfer: The one block not under 69A
The one block order that didn’t invoke 69A was issued on 18 May 2020 and targeted the Netherlands-based file-sharing site WeTransfer and two WeTransfer file-sharing links. The block was ordered under the Unified License agreement, where the telecom department acts as the licensor with internet service providers.
The specific part of the agreement invoked is 7.12, which pertains to safeguarding national security and public interest. “In the interest of national security or public interest, the Licensee shall block Internet sites… as identified and directed by the Licensor from time to time,” the clause reads.
The block on WeTransfer was ordered lifted on 19 June 2020, with no reason specified. The order just said “it has been decided to unblock” the site.
Another unblock order, dated 9 October 2020, was aimed at an IP address linked to a US firm named OneSignal. The firm provides push notification services to businesses, to remind users to use a certain app or website.
However, the IP address remains inaccessible. The firm petitioned the Delhi High Court on 18 January this year for the revocation of the block. According to a court order issued on 1 March 2021, OneSignal claimed internet service providers had blocked the IP address “without any intimation or reasons”. The court order asked the telecom department/IT ministry to reissue the unblocking orders.
The IP address remains inaccessible despite another 5 March 2021 unblocking order.
The third unblock order was dated 2 September 2020 and is linked to a marketing tech firm named AppsFlyer, which is now accessible. No reason was stated.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)