The Cambridge Analytica fiasco informed the world about the ways in which winning elections has become a commercial business, and how it is being outsourced to private firms. Now, the investigation into internet filtering by Citizen Lab, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The Indian Express shows that censorship is also a business, outsourced to an offshore company. India accounted for almost 50 per cent of the URLs blocked in the period studied, and the services of the filtering company Netsweeper were found installed by major ISPs at 42 locations. Pakistan came second in these dubious sweepstakes with only 20 installations. While the government and courts enjoy the right to filter content under the IT Act, the manner in which it is being done is disturbing. The process is far too opaque, no one takes responsibility and users are not told what they are being protected from by the nanny state. The internet has flourished because of a culture of openness and transparency, which are completely lacking in the blocking process.
In situations of public unrest, the reason for blocking services is obvious. During the scare in Bengaluru, which caused an exodus of people of Northeastern origin in 2012, for instance, there was a clear need to disrupt the flow of disinformation. The reason for blocking The Pirate Bay or certain pornography sites is also clear. However, the logic for blocking sites like those of the Centre for Science and Environment, the activism aggregator Avaaz, the Ford Foundation and media stories covering the Rohingya crisis are scarcely obvious, and the lack of a stated motive raises suspicions about motivated censorship. When users encounter a blocked site, they should be clearly informed that it has been blocked by the government or a court. Besides, users should also be told, with transparent reasoning, why they are denied access. To block content without offering a good reason is to infantilise the user.
So far, the accepted protocol was that designated sites and services were to be blocked by ISPs on instruction from the government, or on the basis of a court order. But now, it appears that the dirty work has been outsourced further, to an offshore company which uses artificial intelligence to automatically block whole categories of content and services, whose Indian arm is so virtualised that it has a negligible footprint on this territory. This additional layer of obfuscation is unwelcome, and reflects poorly on all institutions involved. Blocking should be a straightforward matter between government, courts and ISPs, and users should be treated as intelligent stakeholders and kept in the loop.