In a letter to the department dated August 6, 2018, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said blocking an entire app would “likely impinge on the principles of freedom of speech and expression” and such an action would be disproportionate and “harm the constitutional rights of users” at large.
Further, the complete blocking of any app which has billions of users across the world would halt “all day-to-day communications, correspondence and commerce activities. Given that several emerging businesses have begun to evolve on social media and communications applications”, blocking would hurt the economic interests of even innocent users, COAI that represents all major telcos including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Reliance Jio Infocomm said.
Any blocking must be targeted at the content or at the account level, and government should block a user or malicious content instead of blocking an app or site, it said in the letter.
Based on a reference from the Ministry of Electronics & IT (MeitY), DoT has sought views from the industry and stakeholders on technical measures that can be deployed to instantaneously block mobile apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook to curtail hate speech and rumour mongering, in times of crisis.
DoT also plans to hold talks with social media giants on these issues, especially fake news that has gained notoriety for being the trigger for several cases of mob lynching, drawing sharp reactions from even the Supreme Court. The move also comes amid concerns that fake news may be used to influence the 2019 general elections.
The group also cited secured sites, virtual private networks, redirection of URLs and proxies, as some of the barriers for mobile phone operators to initiate blocking of a mobile app.
“Similarly, blocking at DNS level may block the entire domain instead of blocking any particular URL. Hence, there is a risk of over-blocking resulting in blocking of legitimate content,” COAI said, adding that such blocking was prone to leakages wherein a user could change the DNS on a laptop or a mobile phone and bypass the block attempted by the carrier.
The body also pointed out that content providers were bound by the IT Act 2000 and required to take steps to ensure removal of unlawful content. Content providers already have a robust content moderation mechanism, it said.
Once law enforcement agencies bring any unlawful content to the notice of the apps, the latter can “ensure the earliest blocking/removal of the unlawful content”, COAI said.