The government’s repeated failures to take down communally charged content is, for the most part, due to technological shortcomings on the part of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who simply do not possess the tools required for specific and limited blockings.

While a national debate rages over the regulation of internet and social media following the recent riots in Muzaffarnagar, it must be noted that on September 10, the government ordered the blocking of 26 URLs, mostly Facebook and a few YouTube, Daily Motion, etc.

This was followed by a list of 82 blockings on September 18, of which a majority were on Facebook, and many on Twitter, though not necessarily related to the Uttar Pradesh riots alone.

In both cases, the orders were issued under specific provisions consistent with the Gazette notification G.S.R. 181(E), of February 27, 2003, which authorises the government to block harmful content by following a process laid down under Section 69A of the IT Act 2008.

While Communications and IT Minister Kapil Sibal and CERT-IN have been getting the flak for blocking broad content, the blocking orders were worded to avoid misuse or overreach. The instructions ensured that “URLs only and not the main websites i.e. www.facebook.com, www.youtube.com, www.twitter.com” were to be blocked. If followed, this would have meant blocking very specific content, paragraphs or pages of harmful content and nothing over and beyond that.

Apathetic ISPs

It is, in the implementation, however, that there lies a major flaw at the ISPs’ end. Except a handful, most of the 130 ISPs lack the requisite blocking tool, without which they are either dependent upon blocking by large ISPs from whom they borrow bandwidth or they tend to block content at the Domain Name Server (DNS) level resulting in unwarranted blocking of websites, rather than individual URLs, paragraphs or pages. This is the equivalent of using a sledge hammer to kill a fly and results in excessive blocking or none at all. The first results in curbing free speech and the second puts national security at risk.

In fact, this major compliance gap violates ISP license which mandates each ISP to have individual blocking capability under lawful instruction. Clause 34.24 states: “In the interest of national security or public interest, the ISPs shall block Internet sites and/or individual subscribers, as identified and directed by the Licensor from time to time”.

First Assam, now UP

This situation could be easily corrected if ISPs acquire state-of-the-art and well-targeted blocking software such as FortyNet and NetSuites, which are available off the shelf. The investigations show that their reluctance is purely on account of cost and sheer apathy. This shortcoming in the ISP networks was first exposed after the Assam riots last year, when the DoT had called a meeting on August 21, 2012, to understand the current systems being deployed for URLs, IP addresses, secured URL and content blockings along with problems being encountered for blocking at “https” URL level. A year later, a majority of the ISPs still remain non-compliant, thus exposing major chinks in the internal security apparatus, when dealing with necessary security safeguards within the ISP networks.

The unwillingness of ISPs to comply with law has been snowed in under the debate to regulate social media and Internet. Free speech activists have been targeting the government for excessive blocking, while politicians from the Samajwadi party and Chief Ministers, like Tarun Gogoi (Assam), Mukul Sangma (Meghalaya), and D. B. Thapa (Sikkim), have been critical of social media for hate speeches that spread misinformation.

During the U.P. riots, social media was allegedly used for spreading “rumours”. It is believed that a YouTube video relating to a lynching episode in Sialkot, Pakistan, of 2011, came into play immediately after the riots began. As did Facebook postings of morphed headlines from a leading Muzaffarnagar Hindi daily, along with photos of Syrian war casualties being falsely paraded as Muzaffarnagar victims.