Hard to restore internet while blocking social media sites, Manipur tells HC

ISPs say blocked social media sites could still be accessed through VPNs; HC asks ISPs for affidavits on feasibility, tells State to restore limited access to internet in designated spaces under its control

June 20, 2023 01:05 pm | Updated 06:47 pm IST - Imphal

View of a makeshift roadblock placed in the middle of a street by a mob during protests, in Imphal, on June 19, 2023

View of a makeshift roadblock placed in the middle of a street by a mob during protests, in Imphal, on June 19, 2023 | Photo Credit: PTI

With the Manipur government telling the High Court in Imphal that it would be difficult to restore internet access while blocking social media websites, a Bench of Justices Ahanthem Bimol Singh and A. Guneshwar Sharma has now sought a reply from internet service providers regarding the matter. 

The court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation seeking the restoration of internet access in the State while blocking social media websites, in light of the difficulties faced by citizens. The internet has been suspended in the Manipur since May 3, when ethnic conflict broke out between the Meitei and Kuki communities.

During the hearing in this case — along with a batch of other PILs and a writ petition with similar pleas — the State government submitted an affidavit before the court on June 16, saying that it would be difficult to ensure that social media websites were effectively blocked if the internet was restored. 

In the affidavit filed by the Home Department, the State government said that a meeting was held with the Chief Secretary, senior government officials and the Chief Technical Officers of internet service providers (ISPs) on June 7, where this proposition was discussed. 

‘VPNs can bypass blocks’

Having discussed it with their technical teams, the service providers said, in their independent responses, that they would require the government to provide a list of static internet protocol or IP addresses to be whitelisted or allowed, while everything else would be blocked. This can be made possible, the government said. 

However, the ISPs also warned that even if social media websites were blocked, it would not be possible to block access to them through third-party VPNs or virtual private networks, the State government said. 

A similar whitelisting technique was used in Jammu and Kashmir in 2020 but it was seen that VPNs were being used to bypass the restrictions successfully there.

Also read | ST status for Meiteis: HC notice to Centre, State on review petition filed by Meitei body

It also pointed out that the situation in the State was still volatile and that social media could be used to spread disinformation, which might lead to the incitement of people. 

After hearing other advocates appearing for parties in the cases, the court then ordered the ISPs — Vodafone, Idea, Airtel, Jio, and BSNL — to submit short affidavits on whether it was feasible to block social media websites and then restore access to the internet. 

Limited, controlled access

In the meantime, the court issued an interim direction on June 16 to restore limited access to the internet in designated spaces under the control of the State government. 

The court had said, “Taking into consideration the hardship faced by the public specially with regard to the ongoing admission process of the students in the State and to enable the public for carrying out their urgent and essential services, the State authorities are directed to provide limited internet service to the public in some designated places under the controlled of the State authorities.”

The matter has been listed for next hearing on June 23. 

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