Indian internet service providers (ISPs) have installed the highest number of Internet filtering systems and blocked the maximum number of web pages, an investigation covering 10 countries by University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab, along with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and The Indian Express in India, has found.
Covering 10 countries where technologies marketed by Canadian company Netsweeper “appear to be filtering content for national-level, consumer-facing ISPs”, Citizen Lab spotted 42 of these installations by 12 ISPs in India — Pakistan came second with 20 installations. These findings are published in a report released Wednesday. The highest number of blocked unique URLs in these countries — 1,158 out of 2,464 — was also found in India. This only accounts for representative samples of censorship coinciding with the testing period between August 2017 and April 2018, and is probably a fraction of the censored content.
Other than those dealing in porn or piracy, websites and web pages found blocked at different points during the testing period in India include those belonging to domestic and foreign NGOs, United Nations organisations, human rights groups, health forums, feminist groups and political activists.
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A number of Twitter handles, including that of social news organisation @redditindia, were found blocked at some point or the other during the testing period. Instructions to block these Twitter handles were issued in August 2012.
Several media web pages — most dating back to 2012 — belonging to ABC News, Telegraph (UK), Al Jazeera, Tribune (Pakistan), etc., and “related to the Rohingya refugee issue, and the deaths of Muslims in Burma and India more generally” were found blocked as recently as in January 2018. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, where historical snapshots of websites are stored, was also blocked.
Other websites and pages found blocked during the testing period include:
fordfound.org: Ford Foundation is a leading American non-profit working in the fields of civil rights, education, etc. In 2015, India restricted movement of its funds without prior approval in “national interest and security”.
cseindia.org: Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit, promotes environmentally sound and equitable development strategies. CSE chief Sunita Narain was the only non-government expert to be dropped when the prime minister’s council on climate change was revamped in 2014.
avaaz.org: A campaigning platform that hosts arguably the world’s largest online activist network.
genderandaids.unwomen.org: A web portal on gender equality and HIV/AIDS created by UN Women along with UNAIDS.
arabhra.org: Website of Arab Association for Human Rights, in service of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel.
protectioninternational.org: A non-profit that helps human rights defenders develop security strategies in over 30 countries.
drugsense.org: An award winning US non-profit set up in 1995 to encourage citizens’ involvement in drug policy reforms.
aidsonline.com: Journal of the International Aids Society, the world’s largest association of HIV professionals from over 180 countries.
wedo.org: A non-profit headquartered in New York, was awarded the Champion of the Earth by UNEP in 2006 for its work in “gender rights”.
feminist.org: Website of the Feminist Majority Foundation founded in 1987 to promote women’s equality, reproductive health, and non-violence.
iaffe.org: Website of the International Association for Feminist Economics, a non-profit that seeks to advance feminist inquiry of economic issues.
iromsharmilachanu.wordpress.com: Activist Irom Sharmila Chanu’s blog on her fight for justice and peace in Manipur and her more-than-a-decade-long fast against the Armed Forces Special Privileges Act (AFSPA).
When contacted by The Indian Express, officials in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said they did not issue instructions to block any of these sites. Officials in the Department of Telecom, which relays blocking orders form various courts and MeitY to ISPs, did not respond to queries from The Indian Express.
For a number of blocks, it could not be ascertained if a URL was specifically targeted for its content, or if the IP address was blocked which, in turn, made all content hosted at that IP inaccessible. Blocking an IP address inevitably causes significant collateral damage given the volume of content such services usually hosts.
In some instances, a blocked page explained the reason why the content was blocked. In others, the user experienced a time-out, giving the mistaken impression of a faulty Internet connection or unavailability of the content. Internet censorship, points out the Citizen Lab report, is “most insidious when it involves the latter, since users are not informed about what is being denied to them”.
Some blocked websites, however, found a way to beat censorship by changing their URLs. For example, hinduhumanrights.org, the mouthpiece of a UK Hindu group formed “in 2000 to highlight cases of persecution and defamation of Hindus and Hinduism around the globe”, is still blocked but it switched to a .info version in 2011.
Apparently run from Madhya Pradesh as a movement against Islam (“azaan ki viruddh ek abhiyaan”), both bhandafodu.blogspot.com and .in were removed by host blogger.com in November 2011 when it switched to bhaandafodu.blogspot.com and .in with an extra ‘a’.
Under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, the government notified the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for blocking for Access of Information for Public) Rules, 2009. These rules laid out the process for blocking any URL/website in India.
The Citizen Lab study covered Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UAE and Yemen. The results include both websites actually blocked as well as websites that are not actually blocked but which operators intended to block. Given the complexities of the technology, CBC News or The Indian Express could not independently verify the findings.
Operating in India since 2005, Netsweeper’s Internet filtering system has two components: a realtime vast database of URLs divided into categories and a software that looks up how a requested URL is categorised. If the URL belongs to a content category that has been pre-selected for filtering, it is blocked within a few milliseconds.
In the Citizen Lab report, India is the only country where all URLs found blocked belonged to the ‘Custom’ category, implying that they were handpicked for censoring.
In a media release on April 23, Netsweeper maintained that it cannot prevent an end-user from manually overriding its software. Admitting that this is a “dilemma shared by every major developer of IT solutions”, the company said that it “strives to make society safer… (and) protect children from the dissemination of child exploitation.”
The company claimed that Citizen Lab’s assertions “demonstrate a fundamental misapprehension about the Internet spectrum” and that “the ultimate effect of what” they “propose would be the full-scale shut down of the Internet in multiple jurisdictions worldwide”.
Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert underlined that the methods used by it are transparent and peer reproducible. “(Netsweeper’s response) does not answer any of our questions, and provides no facts supporting their bald assertion that we have a ‘fundamental misapprehension’ about the Internet,” he said.
Top telcos among clients
Citizen Lab identified Bharti Airtel, Hathway, Reliance Jio, Reliance Communications, Tata Communications, Tata Sky Broadband, Telstra Global, Pacific Internet, Net4India, Primesoftex, Hughes Escorts Communication and BSNL’s National Internet Backbone as users of Netsweeper filtering systems in India. These ISPs together cater to over 60 per cent of India’s 422 million internet users, according to data maintained by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
When contacted by The Indian Express, Hughes, Telstra and PacNet (acquired by Telstra in 2015) confirmed that they used Netsweeper to implement website blocking as instructed by the government or court orders. Citing confidentiality, they did not respond to queries on blocking specific URLs.
Bharti Airtel said it “does not block any content on its network unless directed by the government/court”. Tata Sky said that “the concerned spokesperson is currently not available”. The others did not respond to queries on their usage of Netsweeper.
Sources in Tata Communications and Reliance Communications claimed the companies did not use Netsweeper. Both the companies own major Internet landing stations (via submarine cables) in India, which is used downstream in the country by a number of other ISPs that use Netsweeper. Sources said this could be a reason why certain IP addresses linked to block results direct to Tata Communications and Reliance Communications.
Netsweeper’s response to media enquiries regarding international operations:
Netsweeper welcomes the opportunity to clarify the conduct of its operations. We are an internationally recognized leader in Internet safety and a key stakeholder in global efforts to combat criminal activity online. Our company strives to make society safer.
The overwhelming majority of Netsweeper’s international clientele are governments and government institutions that seek to protect children from the dissemination of child exploitation. We are a trusted partner of several western governments in ensuring the integrity and safety of the Internet as a learning resource for children.
Several assertions offered by Ronald Diebert, director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto in his correspondence to us demonstrate a fundamental misapprehension about the Internet spectrum. Mr Diebert’s analysis and conclusions, as well as representations he has made before Parliament, are alarming for the real absence of any sound technical understanding on how Internet providers operate, how information technology companies support online operations, and how online programs function.
Netsweeper cannot prevent an end-user from manually overriding its software. This [is] a dilemma shared by every major developer of IT solutions including globally renowned corporations that make the Internet work. Our firm’s technology and its applications are fully disclosed in the public realm. Even the most elementary review of our posted material shows that Netsweeper’s design does not include any organic functionality to limit the online content Mr Diebert highlights.
The ultimate effect of what Mr Diebert and his interests propose would be the full-scale shut down of the Internet in multiple jurisdictions worldwide. This would prevent vital ecommerce and other transactions critical to the livelihood of millions in the developing world.
Netsweeper has always and remains fully compliant with Canadian law and in those countries where it has ongoing concerns. We appreciate receiving analysis and questions that meet professional tests of sound technological understanding and balanced interpretation. It is our view the information and questions provided to Netsweeper fail adequately to meet those tests.
Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert responds:
(Netsweeper’s response) does not answer any of our questions, and provides no facts supporting their bald assertion that we have a ‘fundamental misapprehension’ about the Internet.
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