Stark screens with an unhelpful “Access to this site has been blocked as per court orders” greeted Internet users attempting to access favourite TV shows or a favourite friend's wedding videos on Thursday. This, coming on the same day as Rajya Sabha members debated government rules to “regulate” the Internet, demonstrated an “overreach” of existing copyright and Internet governance laws, Internet users say.
Internet service providers (ISPs) across the country blocked popular websites, in response to a Madras High Court order seeking to prevent piracy of regional films Dammu and 3 . Airtel users reported over 10 sites blocked by broadband as well as Edge and 3G services, while some websites were blocked by MTNL Delhi and BSNL too, among other ISPs.
Legitimate business hit
However, it wasn't only websites such as torrentz.eu and the Pirate Bay, which host torrents allowing for download of films, that were targeted. Legitimate businesses having little to do with copyright infringement, including video-sharing sites Vimeo and Daily Motion, bookmarking site Xmarks, and Pastebin, which allows text found online to be saved, were also blocked for sometime.
Vimeo, a site that hosts high quality, original videos and is popular with independent filmmakers, was especially missed.
Says Ajay Jayakumar, creative manager at DCAM production studio here, “The entire DCAM website is linked through Vimeo. All our videos are there. For the duration of this ban, the site was down. We pride ourselves on the design of our site. But the functionality is ruined because of this ban. We paid for a pro account, but Vimeo can't do anything about it.”
Atul Kattukaran, partner at 1st December Films in the city, has his personal and company portfolio on Vimeo. His audience, including clients, could not see his work and he had to make alternative arrangements, he says.
Mr. Kattukaran, who also makes wedding films, says he is “very worried”. “People pass on links to their wedding videos around the world. If they can't see it or if those videos have to be moved, it'd be a big problem.”
This isn't the first time Vimeo got the worst of copyright maximalism — the website was reportedly taken down with torrent sites earlier this month “as per instructions from the Department of Telecom”. While much of the creative industry isn't ready to make a switch out of Vimeo, they are considering alternatives such as YouTube. “They don't have the guts to shut YouTube down, because IPL is running on it. Such double standards are complete nonsense,” adds Mr. Jayakumar.
A ‘rare' injunction
Ironically, the suit that resulted in the blocks was brought by Copyright Labs, Chennai, for the makers of 3 , a film whose claim to fame is the song ‘Kolaveri', which went viral after it was leaked online.
“You can't have a scenario where you enjoy the viral nature of the Internet and then [want to invoke laws] that break that same viral architecture,” says Lawrence Liang, founder of the Alternative Law Forum, India.
Faced with criticism, a representative of Copyright Labs, Chennai, claimed they asked only for some infringing links to be taken down.
The John Doe or Ashok Kumar order is issued against “unknown infringers” (all referred to as Ashok Kumar), if the plaintiff can establish that he/she anticipates large-scale infringement. “Such ex parte injunctions are rare,” explains Mr. Liang, as it denies another person's right to be heard and defend themselves. “The social cost is high.”
However, many copyright holders rely on such laws — Reliance Entertainment secured similar orders before the release of Singham (July 2011), Bodyguard (August 2011) and Don 2 (December 2011). Reports suggest they have the orders for most big releases.
ISPs comply by overcompensating and blocking entire sites. If the threat of litigation with rights holders isn't reason enough for sweeping implementation of court orders, there are also Information Technology (IT) (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011, under the IT Act, that require them to remove infringing material within 36 hours of a take-down request.
“Such actions infringe consumer rights and affect access to knowledge. We now need to think about how we can hold ISPs liable for denial of service to consumers,” says Mr. Liang.
Faced with blocks, the present laws allow users to do little more than be outraged in 140 characters or less and find means to circumvent these restrictions (there are plenty).
One group, however, had other plans. Opindia (Twitter handle @ opindia_revenge) is the Indian arm of Anonymous, a global, decentralised online community of ‘hacktivists', who fight for an open Internet. In a video addressed to “citizens of India”, set to dramatic music, members invited people to “fight against Internet censorship” as part of “Operation India engaged”.
They brought down websites of the Congress, Department of Telecom, Supreme Court, and Ministry of Information and Technology (mit.gov.in), and targeted those of the Delhi government, Lok Sabha and Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (in charge of cyber security), with characteristic distributed denial of service attack.
The government claims that stronger regulations are necessary to tackle “cyber terrorism” and attacks such as this, a claim that was reiterated in the Rajya Sabha debate by Minister Kapil Sibal.
P. Rajeev, MP, who initiated the debate, sought protection for intermediaries from liabilities arising out of user-generated content. He argued for Internet “regulation” rather than “control” and moved a motion for annulment of the IT (Intermediaries) Rules.
The motion was “negatived”.