The Supreme Court’s IT Act Judgment, and Secret Blocking

As has been widely reported by now, yesterday the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, reading down S. 79 (intermediary liability) and upholding S. 69A (blocking of websites). I will be writing a detailed analysis of the jurisprudence behind the Court’s striking down of S. 66A in a while. In this post, however, I want to briefly comment on S. 69A and secret blocking.

S. 69A of the IT Act authorises the government to block access to websites, on grounds that roughly overlap with (but are not identical to) Article 19(2) of the Constitution (reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech). S. 69A(2) specifies that the procedure and safeguards for carrying out blocking will be specified. Pursuant to this, “Blocking Rules” were framed in 2009. The Blocking Rules prescribe who can make a blocking request, set up the (executive) authorities that will examine the requests, provide an opportunity for pre-decisional hearings for the intermediaries (and/or, if they can be traced, originators), and lay out the process for blocking. There are three crucial aspects that must be noted:

(a) The Rules do not provide for an appeals process.

(b) Rule 15 requires that Designated Officer to maintain records of blocking requests and actions taken, but

(c) Rule 16 stipulates that “strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the requests and complaints received and actions taken thereof.”

As is obvious, the main problem with the Blocking Rules (among many others) is their secrecy. The rules require notice to the intermediary, but naturally, intermediaries are bound to be far more interested in avoiding confrontations with the government, and in self-preservation, than in defending the freedom of speech. Furthermore, Rule 16 requires confidentiality, thereby raising the presumption that nobody beyond the intermediaries ought to know about a block. For instance, when the Software Freedom Law Centre attempted to get access to blocking orders for 1208 blocked websites in 2013, it was denied on Rule 16 grounds. As has been well-documented, it is often difficult to even find out that a non-accessible website has been blocked, and even more difficult to find out why that has happened.

In this context, what does the Court’s judgment, upholding both S. 69A and the Rules in their entirety, mean? At Medianama, Nikhil Pahwa argues that in effect, secret blocks will now continue, just as they were happening before.

There are, however, two important aspects that ought to be noted.

First, consider Rule 8 of the Blocking Rules:

On receipt of request under rule 6, the Designated Officer shall make all reasonable efforts to identify the person or intermediary who has hosted the information or part thereof as well as the computer resource on which such information or part thereof is being hosted and where he is able to identify such person or intermediary and the computer resource hosting the information or part thereof which have been requested to be blocked for public access, he shall issue a notice…”

The text of the Rule uses the phrase “person or intermediary”, thus implying that notice may be sent to either the originator or the intermediary. This – as explained above – is deeply problematic. In his article, Nikhil writes:

If my site is blocked, don’t I have the right to know why it’s been blocked? Mobango.com, a company owned by the People Group (Shaadi.com), was blocked in India for six months and didn’t know why for the longest time. Where was their Committee hearing? Where was the hearing for Vimeo, Github, Dailymotion (read), Imgur (read)? Shouldn’t they be informed of the process of getting a block removed?”

In Paragraph 110 of the judgment, however, the Court notes:

“It is also clear from an examination of Rule 8 that it is not merely the intermediary who may be heard. If the “person” i.e. the originator is identified he is also to be heard before a blocking order is passed.”

In other words, the Court takes the disjunctive “or” in the Rule, and effectively transforms it into a conjunctive “and”. It therefore seems to be the case that henceforth – insofar as they can be identified, originators must also be notified of blocks, and given the opportunity to challenge them.

I would suggest, however, that the logic of the judgment goes even further. Consider Paragraph 109, where the Court holds S. 69A and the rules constitutional:

“It will be noticed that Section 69A unlike Section 66A is a narrowly drawn provision with several safeguards. First and foremost, blocking can only be resorted to where the Central Government is satisfied that it is necessary so to do. Secondly, such necessity is relatable only to some of the subjects set out in Article 19(2). Thirdly, reasons have to be recorded in writing in such blocking order so that they may be assailed in a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution.”

It is the “thirdly” that is crucial. The Court specifies that blocking orders must be reasoned, and in writing, so that they may be challenged under Article 226. Now, who may challenge a blocking order? Obviously, an intermediary and/or the originator are entitled to do so. But consider also paragraph 20 of the judgment, when the Court starts its examination of S. 66A:

“It is clear, therefore, that the petitioners are correct in saying that the public’s right to know is directly affected by Section 66A. Information of all kinds is roped in – such information may have scientific, literary or artistic value, it may refer to current events, it may be obscene or seditious. That such information may cause annoyance or inconvenience to some is how the offence is made out. It is clear that the right of the people to know – the market place of ideas – which the internet provides to persons of all kinds is what attracts Section 66A.”

The underlined portions tap into an established principle of Indian free speech jurisprudence: that Article 19(1)(a) guarantees not only the rights of speakers to express themselves, but also the rights of listeners (or, in the case of the internet, viewers) to access information (other Constitutions – such as the German and the South African – expressly include listeners’ rights as an aspect of the freedom of expression).

For instance, in LIC vs Manubhai D. Shah, while dealing with the rejection of a right of reply, the Supreme Court noted: “such an attitude on the part of the LIC can be described as both unfair and unreasonable; unfair because fairness demanded that both view points were placed before the readers, however limited be their number, to enable them to draw their own conclusions and unreasonable because there was no logic or proper justification for refusing publication… the respondent’s fundamental right of speech and expression clearly entitled him to insist that his views on the subject should reach those who read the magazine so that they have a complete picture before them and not a one sided or distorted one…

And, in State of UP vs Raj Narain, Justice Mathew, in his concurring opinion, noted:

In a Government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries.”

Examples can be multiplied, but suffice it to say that the right to information, and its corollary, the rights of readers and viewers to access information, constitute part of the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a). But if that is true, then a website block implicates the constitutional rights not only of intermediaries and originators, but also of the general public – each member of which, for that reason, has the right to challenge the blocking under Article 226, as the Court specifically upheld. Now, it is impossible to challenge a blocking order unless one has access to it. Consequently, when the Court says that blocking orders must be reasoned and in writing, so that they may be challenged under Article 226, it follows by necessary implication that the blocking orders must be made available to the public.

The doctrine of necessary implication is well-accepted in statutory interpretation. A statute is understood to contain not only what is express, but also that which is necessary to effectuate its “object or purpose”, or to make effective the rights (or privileges) that it grants. This doctrine would apply with even greater force to subordinate legislation, such as the Blocking Rules. Consequently, it may well be argued that even though the Court did not expressly overrule Rule 16, the logic of its judgment – in light of settled jurisprudence on Article 19(1)(a) – means that it did so impliedly. Admittedly, neither necessary implication nor implied overruling are to be lightly invoked, but in this case, not only does this conclusion seem to follow inexorably from the Supreme Court’s Article 19(1)(a) jurisprudence, but the fact that what is at issue is a subordinate legislation, the normal presumptions against necessary implication/implied overruling are consequently weaker.

This, of course, is probably an over-optimistic reading of the judgment. So perhaps the best way of settling this issue might well be through a clarification petition.

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Free Speech, Internet Freedom, IT Act

3 responses to “The Supreme Court’s IT Act Judgment, and Secret Blocking

  1. Pingback: SpicyIP Tidbit – TRAI OTT Consultations on OTT Licensing and Network Neutrality | Spicy IP

  2. Pingback: The Internet Has a New Standard for Censorship – Jyoti Panday

  3. Pingback: DeitY says 143 URLs have been Blocked in 2015; Procedure for Blocking Content Remains Opaque and in Urgent Need of Transparency Measures – Jyoti Panday

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