Visiting torrent sites won't land you in jail but... Be wary

The earlier warning was much more benign. It had no such threat of a legal consequence.

 |  4-minute read |   22-08-2016
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The growing list of blocked sites often creates consternation at a time when internet has become a dominant medium for many to be connected with the world, conduct business, engage in entertainment activities and do myriad other things.

Yet till now, we could just move on and search for the alternative without any consequence for visiting a blocked URL. Not anymore.

Rarely do we care to read the message that the blocked URL display, but those who do may have realised what we are talking about.

If you visit such a URL, you will be shown the following warning:

"This URL has been blocked under the instructions of the competent government authority or in compliance with the orders of a court of competent jurisdiction. Viewing, downloading, exhibiting or duplicating an illicit copy of the contents under this URL is punishable as an offence under the laws of India, including but not limited to under sections 63, 63-A, 65 and 65-A of the Copyright Act, 1957 which prescribe imprisonment for three years and also fine of upto Rs 3,00,000. Any person aggrieved by any such blocking of this URL may contact at urlblock@tatacommunications.com who will, within 48 hours, provide you the details of relevant proceedings under which you can approach the relevant high court or authority for redressal of your grievance."

blocked-sites-embed_082216053223.jpg Accessing information under a blocked URL may land you in trouble now.

What does this mean? What has changed? Let's look at the official government policy:

1. Even viewing blocked URLs may get you a three-year jail sentence as well as invite a fine of Rs 3 lakh

Even viewing a torrent file, or downloading a file from a host that may have been banned in India, or even viewing an image on a file host like Imagebam is now a crime. You don't have to download a torrent file, and then the actual videos or other files, which might be copyrighted. Just accessing information under a blocked URL will land you in jail and leave you poorer by Rs 3 lakh.

Compared to such draconian and chilling provisions, the earlier warning was much more benign. It had no such threat of a legal consequence. It only informed that the said URL is blocked at the instructions of the department of telecom.

2. Blocking of URLs is now happening at the internet gateways instead of ISPs

Earlier, most of the URLs and websites were blocked using DNS-filtering. This means the DNS of the blocked site was added to a list maintained by the internet service provider (ISP) and whenever a user tried connecting to that site, the DNS server of the internet service provider would block that request.

However, this was easy to bypass through third party DNS servers, HTTPS or other encryptions to secure the network between the user's computer and the site server.

Now the government is relying on big companies like Tata Communications and Airtel that manage a number of internet gateways in India, and have more sophisticated tools available to enforce the blockade instead of relying on ISPs, which are more in number and lack similar wherewithal as the mangers of internet gateways.

Why have the viewers been made liable?

The Bombay High Court recently in its Dishoom John Doe order passed on July 26, 2016 asked internet service providers in India to not just block URLs but also explain to users why the URLs have been blocked and possibly warn them of consequences of illegally accessing copyright work.

Does it mean I will be actually jailed if I viewed such content?

The ambiguity around it, as well as the absence of prior information on something like this, which make every web user in India a criminal, indicates that this is just a message and not an official government policy which will be enforced.

Also the sheer number of violators makes it improbable that an average user visiting a blocked URL will face legal action even if the government was serious about its warning.

Still the mere presence of the warning makes one vulnerable to legal action. It will make us dependent on the discretion of the government.

Is it end of the road for torrent use?

Not anytime soon.

First, not all torrents have been banned. There are a plethora of torrents available and no sooner is one torrent taken down, it is replaced by several others.

Second, even blocked torrents are accessible using easily available virtual private networks. These VPNs are more secure from detection.

But there is no denying the fact that torrent users face uncertain times ahead.

First, the state agencies globally are catching up and going after big torrents. The arrest of world's largest BitTorrent distributor Kickass Torrent's founder and the Kickass Torrent subsequently going offline is just the latest in what is emerging as a trend.

Second, within India, once blocked these torrents and other URLs remain blocked for years. Thus attracting a blockade proves to be curtains for the said URL.

Third, the courts in India are liberally granting requests for preventive blocking of websites on the wishes of filmmakers and content creators.

Writer

Apoorva Pathak Apoorva Pathak

The author is alumni, IIT Roorkee and writes on politics, economy, policy.

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