New Delhi: The websites of three environmental advocacy groups that were campaigning against the contentious draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 have been blocked, the groups said in separate statements Monday.
Let India Breathe (LIB), FridaysForFuture (FFF) and There Is No Earth B released their own statements, while referring to each other, claiming that their websites have been “rendered inaccessible” without any reasons being offered for the move.
Let India Breathe Statement on #InternetCensorship
Today, we are reaching out to our community and large, diverse base of volunteers to inform them about an unprecedented act of internet censorship. (1/11)#InternetFreedom #DigitalLockdown pic.twitter.com/eCdQyoWtXz
— Let India Breathe (@LetIndBreathe) July 13, 2020
All three groups are actively engaged in advocacy against the draft EIA, which has been criticised for giving more discretionary powers to the government in deciding regulation of natural resources. The volunteer groups also work on environmental conservation, organising climate strikes, and generating awareness on global warming and climate change.
A government body said it blocked the first two websites, but didn’t reveal on whose orders. Speaking about the third website, a Union minister said he wasn’t aware of the case.
What the groups said
In its statement, LIB said it first noticed on 29 June that its website, ‘LetIndiaBreathe.in’, was inaccessible. The group reached out to internet advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, which conducted extensive tests to find that the website had been blocked due to a domain hold placed by National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI), which is a registry for the ‘.in’ domain.
The FFF website, also on the ‘.in’ domain, remains inaccessible since 10 July, said the statement. “Let India Breathe told us about their website being blocked and shortly after even our website was also blocked,” said the FFF social media in-charge who did not wish to be named.
“We were informed 3-4 days back by our website service provider that they would no longer be able to host our website. When we asked for more details, we were told to get in touch with the Delhi Police and clarify the matter,” said the FFF member.
The website ThereIsNoEarthB.com was also found to be blocked on 10 July, said the group’s statement, adding that it was “rendered inaccessible” on the networks of some ISPs “as per the DoT [Department of Telecommunications] compliance”. A volunteer at the group said the website was functioning on all services barring Reliance Jio and BSNL.
“Our domain is showing on rest of the service providers. However, it is definitely completely blocked on Jio networks, while there are mixed reports of the website blocked on BSNL. Some people are saying it is blocked on BSNL while others are saying it is no longer blocked on BSNL,” said the volunteer who didn’t wish to be named.
What NIXI and minster said
Speaking about the block, NIXI chief executive officer Sanjay Goel told ThePrint that NIXI blocked the LIB and FFF websites on government orders. However, he refused to disclose which ministry gave the block order and when.
He said NIXI doesn’t block any website on its own as it’s only a registry. “We only block a website after getting a government order,” he said.
“We get orders from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), home ministry and others as well. Our business is to proliferate ‘.in’ websites, therefore more ‘.in’ websites only benefit us. We have very little discretion in such matters,” he said.
Goel added that NIXI, which is a non-profit company that works under MeitY, was not given any reason for blocking the two websites. “We get such orders from time to time,” he said.
Sanjay Dhotre, Minister of State for Communications, which oversees the DoT, told ThePrint that he didn’t know about the case of blocking these three websites. However, he explained that a committee handled by the Ministry of Home Affairs, in which the IT additional secretary is also a member, oversees such matters.
“The committee gets many complaints across states from chief secretaries regarding objectionable content in websites. The committee then oversees the complaint and an enquiry is made. This is a continuous process,” said Dhotre.
‘Violative of natural justice’
Lawyer and IFF executive director Apar Gupta said when the websites were blocked, his organisation had repeated correspondence with GoDaddy, an internet domain registrar and web hosting company, and found out that the LIB website domain had been placed under a domain hold.
Gupta said it took until the first week of July to understand if the LIB website was actually blocked.
“There was no clear communication as to why these websites were blocked. Such action is unprecedented. A website is usually blocked if there is a trademark infringement or anything related to gambling or tobacco. Legally, this is completely violative of all rules of natural justice,” he said.
Gupta said at least a notice should have been given or an opportunity for the organisations to defend themselves after any charges had been made. “We wrote to NIXI on 10 July asking for restoration of the websites. We are engaging in good faith and hope that there is a positive result,” he added.
What the organisations do
The social media handles of all three groups are functioning. But it was their portals through which people could file their objections to the draft EIA notification.
“We had a sample email (opposing the notification) which people could refer to on our website and there was also a lot more detail on the issue on the website. We also had a tool kit on what all people could do to oppose the draft EIA,” said the FFF member.
LIB founder Yash Marwah, a 25-year-old media professional, said the website was a huge awareness portal not just for the draft EIA notification but other environmental issues as well.
“We broke down a lot of environmental jargon and simplified it for others. While it is disheartening that the website has been blocked, we realise that clearly what we were doing was making enough difference for it to be blocked. We are a volunteer-based organisation, with mostly students,” said Marwah.
Even FFF and There Is No Earth B are volunteer organisations, with mostly students as members who don’t wish to be identified.
What the draft EIA is
Under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, India decided its first Environmental Impact Assessment norms in 1994. This set a legal framework to regulate activities which utilise and impact natural resources. Each new development project has to go through the EIA process to get an environmental clearance.
The new draft EIA notification seeks to amend the 2006 modified version of the 1994 norms. Issues raised over this draft include the claims that it bolsters the government’s discretionary powers and limits public engagement on questions related to safeguarding the environment. It allows the government to decide which projects are strategic and gives no information on which projects will be placed in the public domain. It further exempts many projects from public consultation.
Marwah said LIB first read the draft EIA, it realised that the document was very problematic. “Therefore we did a lot of research and mobilised support to create awareness about this campaign,” he said.
The initial deadline for public feedback on the draft EIA notification was 30 June this year. However, the Delhi High Court extended this to 11 August 2020.