Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Bengaluru: Within 48 hours of restored access—after domestic protest and international attention—to three environmental advocacy websites that the government had blocked, they were inaccessible again in major cities via leading Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
On 26 July 2020, the websites of Let India Breathe, Fridays For Future India (FFF India) and ThereIsNoEarthB, all environmental collectives, could not be reached in some cities, such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, via some ISPs, such as Airtel and Vodafone.
Without notice, explanation or a hearing, the government blocked these websites between 29 June and 10 July in what experts and lawyers said were violations of India’s laws and its international commitments. The three websites are involved in raising awareness about and directing public comments on a contentious draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, issued on 23 March, 2020 by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
“Website blocking of this manner for environmental campaigns is unprecedented,” Apar Gupta, Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a Delhi-based advocacy.
Unless the government orders ISPs to restrict access, such blocks violate net neutrality, experts said, referring to the principle, which the government subscribes to, that ISPs must treat all content and services on the internet equally and without discrimination.
While the government plays what appeared to be a cat-and-mouse game with the websites and protestors, it has ignored a 30 June Delhi High Court order to translate “within 10 days” the draft EIA notification into India’s 22 official languages.
It is now nearly a month since the Delhi High Court order. The draft remains in English and Hindi.
‘We Follow Govt Orders’
Under the terms of its functions, as approved by the global nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI), a government-run nonprofit company that directs national internet traffic, can act against internet domains on two grounds: ownership issues, such as trademarks; and abuse policies related to things banned nationally, such as non-consensual sexual imagery and gambling.
On 29 June, the website Let India Breathe was blocked after a NIXI directive that the IFF protested against. Within ten days of the block on Let India Breathe, websites run by ThereIsNoEarthB and FFF India, an informal collective of Indians associated with the international climate movement inspired by Greta Thunberg, were blocked.
“Neither of these grounds are applicable in this case (Let India Breathe) but NIXI has suspended the site,” said Gupta. He pointed out that Let India Breathe’s website is also “not in violation of the abuse policy that is available on NIXI’s own website”.
NIXI confirmed that the blocks were ordered by the government.
“NIXI is a company and does not normally block or unblock websites on its own,” Sanjay Goel, joint secretary to the government of India & CEO of NIXI told Article 14 in an email response to questions. “We follow government orders in these matters… the website in question [Let India Breathe] was acted upon on the orders of law enforcement agency.”
Goel did not explain what laws the Let India Breathe website had violated, and he did not answer why ThereIsNoEarthB and the FFF India websites had been blocked.
On 10 July, the IFF sent a notice to NIXI on behalf of Let India Breathe, stating that such actions are "violative of the the ICANN and .IN registry guidelines as well as the fundamental rights of the collective who operate and the public participants who exercise their fundamental rights".
NIXI, under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), manages the .IN domain, which refers to all websites ending with .IN. ICANN is the global body that appoints country registrars, such as NIXI, which appoints contractors, such as goDaddy and Big Rock, from whom you can purchase domains.
On 3 July, goDaddy, the domain provider of the website run by Let India Breathe, said that the “server hold” had been placed by NIXI. But NIXI has provided “no official responses about why our website was blocked,” said Radhika Jhaveri of Let India Breathe .
The IFF notice said such actions "smack of arbitrariness, secrecy and are prima facie illegal." The IFF also filed a right-to-information request with NIXI on 15 July about the blocks. When this story was published, no response had been received.
The Cat-And-Mouse Game
On 10 July, FFF India’s website was blocked after an 8 July Delhi Police order, which accused the website of violating, among other laws, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA), which the IFF’s Gupta said was the first time that UAPA has been referred to in a website block.
On 14 July, Big Rock forwarded a notice it had received from the Delhi Police under IT Act to FFF India.
The notice referenced UAPA claiming that the website “depicts objectionable contents and unlawful activities or terrorist act, which are dangerous for the peace, tranquillity and sovereignty of the India” and that the website’s services are “being used for transmission of unlawful content”.
The notice also alleged that the FFF India website contains “religious hatred
The Delhi Police have not apologised for insinuating that young activists “trying to give concerned citizens a voice” were involved in "terrorist acts", said Abhinav Sekhri, a Delhi-based lawyer who is part of a team of lawyers advising FFF India.
The Delhi Police action “speaks volumes of the lackadaisical attitude with which arguably the most oppressive law in the statute-book is being deployed at the moment,” said Sekhri, who noted that regardless of intention, sending such a notice sends "an unimaginable degree of fear through anyone directly or even remotely associated with the [climate-change] movement”.
The police then issued a new notice on 12 July with charges under section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, (IT Act) “computer related offences”. Four days later, on 16 July, the Delhi police withdrew this notice too because the “unlawful activity had ceased”.
There is still no clear explanation why these notices were issued and withdrawn.
Article 14 sent a questionnaire to the MeitY asking why the three websites were blocked and to the Cyber Crime unit of Delhi Police. We will update this copy if and when we receive a response.
On 10 July, ThereIsNoEarthB reported that some internet service providers (ISPs), such as Jio Network and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, were blocking access to their website. “Under Jio networks, the site was blocked with the message "you are not authorised to access this web page as per DOT [Department of Telecommunications] compliance, so it is likely done under government directions,” ThereIsNoEarthB said in an email to Article 14. There was no spokesperson quoted because as a policy they are a “faceless and leaderless” collective. The email said the website’s users complained the website was often not accessible, but there was no communication from ISPs about a block.
All three websites, as we said, were running online campaigns to build awareness and assist those who wanted to send comments to the environment ministry and its minister, Prakash Javadekar, on the draft 2020 EIA notification, which as Article 14 has reported, dilutes a critical environmental-protection law. Spokespersons of the three websites said no emails were sent directly from their websites, whether to MoEFCC or other authorities, as part of the campaign they were running on the draft EIA notification.
After public protest, websites of Let India Breathe and FFF India were restored on 24 July, while ThereIsNoEarthB said: “While it has been awesome to hear about the websites of fellow environmental groups @LetIndBreathe @FFFIndia being finally restored, we cannot yet confirm of the same for our website.”
All three sites, as we said, again became inaccessible on 26 July in a few cities over a few ISPs.
Illegal Censoring Of Dissent On Draft EIA
As it acted against websites promoting debate and protest against the draft EIA notification, the government ignored a Delhi High Court order to publish the draft in 22 official languages by 10 June 2020.
“We are talking of a legislation that affects more than one billion people of this country,” said Meenakshi Kapoor, an independent environment policy researcher based in Himachal Pradesh.
In March, 2020 MoEFCC made public the draft EIA notification and said “any person interested in making any objections or suggestions on the proposal contained in the draft notification may forward the same in writing for consideration of the Central Government…”
"Around 1.5 lakh letters have been sent to the [environment] ministry via the campaign we were running protesting against draft EIA," said Jhaveri.
Letters were also sent via the campaign that FFF India was running.
In a representation made to the Cyber Crime unit of the Delhi Police, FFF India said that its campaign “intended to draw attention” to the draft EIA Notification and “to make it easier for a person concerned by the apparent dilution in the EIA norms in the draft Notification to raise their concerns by simply writing an email” to MoEFCC and its minister, Javadekar.
On 23 July, the Hindu quoted his spokesperson as saying: “How is spamming Honourable Minister’s personal mail with a lakh mails justified, when suggestion and public comments can be sent at the official mail provided for the purpose?” All three websites said they only provided draft emails and publicly available email addresses to those who wanted to comment.
Defying The Courts
A pre-legislative consultation policy issued in 2014 recommends that if a legislation affects a specific group of people, the government should make efforts to reach such people. It is in line with this policy to have the law translated and published in local languages, said Kapoor, the environmental-policy researcher.
On 16 July, the Karnataka High Court directed the Union government to consider extending the time further given concerns about the draft not being publicised adequately in local languages.
A division bench of Chief Justice Abhay Oka and Justice M Nagaprasanna also warned that if they were “not satisfied that adequate publicity is not given in local languages and time is extended, we will consider interim prayer made in the petition of staying the notification”.
During this hearing the counsel for the Union government said the MoEFCC had directed the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authorities (SLEIAAs) to publicise the draft EIA in local languages.
In the next hearing on 23 July, the Union government counsel said that the draft EIA has been published in Hindi and English in the official gazette in accordance with The Official Languages Act, 1963 and that there is no provision that mandates publication in “vernacular languages”.
“Prima facie we do not agree with the submission that hands (sic) of the respondent are tied by virtue of provisions of the Official Languages Act,” said Justices Oka and Nagaprasanna, who added they would consider staying the draft EIA notification during the next hearing on 5 August 2020 “if adequate publicity is not given in local languages”.
About the government’s contention that the SEIAAs had been asked to translate and publish the draft EIA in local languages, the Court said: “There is nothing placed on record that this direction has been implemented.”
“The reluctance to disseminate information in a form and language that people understand, and the recent attempts at blocking the websites of youth movements, all seem an effort towards curbing public engagement in making of the EIA,” said Krithika A Dinesh, a lawyer and researcher in environmental policy.
(Rishika Pardikar is freelance journalist based in Bengaluru)