Amid charges of curbing freedom of speech, and fears sparked by information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani making grand plans of regulating digital media in India, what has largely gone unnoticed is how effectively the ruling dispensation is throttling its users' ability to access information available on the web.
As per the findings of an investigation by University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab in partnership with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and The Indian Express, India finds itself leading a list of countries with most websites blocked.
NEW REPORT: Planet Netsweeper: An investigation into the global proliferation of Internet filtering systems manufactured by Canadian company, Netsweeper https://t.co/RAMPAzrhAV— Citizen Lab (@citizenlab) April 25, 2018
The report claims that internet service providers (ISPs) in India have been found to have "installed the highest number of internet filtering systems and blocked the maximum number of web pages" in a list that includes nine other countries.
The findings of the investigations see India facing the ignominy of topping a list that not only includes its neighbour, Pakistan, but other countries such as Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UAE and Yemen, too, that have in the past been found guilty of trampling upon the rights of their citizens by censoring the press and internet.
Citizen Lab in its investigations has uncovered that the censorship attempts by the respective authorities in these countries have been brought to fruition by various products, ranging from firewalls to other content censoring solutions provided by a Waterloo, Ontario-based Canadian company called Netsweeper.
The installations provided by the company to the ISPs in many of these countries, however, aren't only being used to deny citizens access to child pornography or other morally contentious content, but also blocking passageway to "digital content protected by international legal frameworks", including access to news on religious content, LGBTQ+ resources, and political campaigns.
As per Citizen Lab, a combination of publicly available "IP scanning, network measurement data, and other technical tests" were used to identify Netsweeper installations first in 30 countries, and then the list was narrowed down to 10 countries where the filter of content was taking place at a country-wide level by ISPs.
Censorship attempts in India worse than Pakistan, Bahrain and UAE combined
Shedding more light on the sorry state of affairs, Citizen Lab claims that firewalls and other content filtering solutions provided by Netsweeper were being used freely by Indian ISPs – 42 installations by 12 internet providers – to block access to a number of websites and URLs.
All major ISPs, including Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio, Hathway, Reliance Communications, Tata Communications, Tata Sky Broadband, Telstra Global, Pacific Internet, Net4India, Primesoftex are using Netsweeper filtering systems in India.
But that's not it. More damning is the revelation that the number of such installations used to censor the internet by the ISPs – most likely at the behest of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre – isn't just the highest of the 10 countries, but as it turns out is more than twice the combined total of the next two countries on the list, Pakistan – as many as 20 such installations – and Bahrain – 16 such installations.
India also has almost 15 times the number of such data censoring installations than one of the most censored nations in the world, UAE, which deploys three Netsweeper installations to curb access to information to its citizens.
Apart from the highest number of Netsweeper installations, the highest number of blocked unique URLs – 1,158 – was also found in India. Interestingly, this number is almost half of the total websites blocked – 2,464 – across the 10 countries.
What is being blocked?
As the investigation reveals, Google searches for the keywords such as "gay" and "lesbian" were blocked in the UAE, Bahrain, and Yemen, while websites under the category "abortions" were entirely blocked in Kuwait, and many websites hosting political news, opinion, and criticism were blocked in Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan.
In India, however, other than websites hosting child porn or pirated content, an overwhelming number of blocked URLs included ones that hosted content related to the deaths of Muslims in Burma and atrocities on the minorities in India. Further, exposing the nefarious intentions of the authorities involved, websites of foreign NGOs, human rights groups, feminist groups and political activists were also blocked.
Of these the most notable are many of the web pages belonging to ABC News, The Telegraph (UK), Al Jazeera, Tribune (Pakistan) which contain stories “related to the Rohingya refugee issue, and the deaths of Muslims in Burma and India more generally” that were found blocked as recently as in January 2018.
As CBC news explains, "Facebook groups discussing the refugee crisis were also meant to be blocked, but were likely still accessible over encrypted connections."
Why should concern us?
Censoring data in such a covert and arbitrary manner fly right in the face of freedom and right enshrined in our Constitution and when allowed to go unchecked leads to violence and hate crimes going unpunished that further cause fissures in society.
Blanket bans on internet in Kashmir and the alleged use of filtering technologies to control what we access on the web when used without following due process are gross violations of freedom of expression of not only the marginalised, but all us.
With India reporting more blocked unique URLs than all other countries combined and its ISPs using more than twice the amount of Netsweeper installations than even countries such as Pakistan, Bahrain and UAE combined is beyond alarming and exposes an insidious game that is being played. A game that needs to be stopped at once.
Suffice it to say, ahead of the general elections in 2019, for the authorities to be allegedly blocking access to news and information on atrocities being committed on minorities in India and abroad is a move that could have far worse ad reaching consequences than data leaks orchestrated by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
The government, for what its worth, is maintaining non-complicity in the matter. When contacted by The Indian Express, officials in the ministry of electronics and information technology shrugged off responsibility, adding that they had not issued any order to block these websites.
As for the officials in the department of telecom – the authority through which the final orders are relayed to the ISPs – has chosen to not respond to queries from the publication on the matter.