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DoT seeks views on blocking mobile apps like FB, WhatsApp

Chamber of commerce Assocham criticises move, saying it could hurt Digital India dream

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NEW DELHI: India’s telecom department has sought views of the stakeholders on technical measures that can be adopted for blocking mobile apps like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram. The proposal has been questioned and criticised by a large section of the industry and civil society, including chamber of commerce Assocham.

The Department of Telecom (DoT) on 18 July, 2018 had written to all telecom operators, the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI), industry body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) and others and asked for their inputs to block applications under Section 69A of the Information technology Act. Stated aim: to uphold national security and public order.

"DoT in the letter had said that the Ministry of Electronics and IT and law enforcement agencies have raised issue around blocking of certain mobile apps like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telecom, etc. to meet requirement under Section 69A of IT Act," PTI quoted an unnamed government source aware of the development.

However, a source at DoT, on condition of anonymity, told the wire news service there was no such move to block any app and the telecom department had only started a consultation process based on a reference from the Ministry of Electronics and Information technology (Meity).

Though PTI filed a news report on the development yesterday in the second half, the story was actually broken by online news portal medianama.com, which said it had reviewed the letter.

The Section 69A of IT Act talks about power to issue directions for blocking for public access to any information through any computer resource. The law authorises the federal government or any officer authorised by it to issue direction to block the information on Internet in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to them.

"Meity (Ministry of Electronics and IT) has informed DoT that blocking such apps during emergency situations are difficult as they work through multiple IP addresses and on different protocols, and, hence, there is a need for a reasonable good solution to protect national security. Being the licensing authority, DoT has initiated the discussion based on a letter received from the Group Coordinator, Cyber Law Division (Meity) during the second week of July," a DoT official told PTI.

In response to DoT consultation, industry body Assocham said that a proposed measure to evolve mechanisms to block applications as a whole at the telecom operator level is excessive, unnecessary, and would greatly harm India's reputation as growing hub of innovation in technology as the country needed a “clear and predictable legal framework grounded on fairness, proportionality and the rule of law”.

Assocham said that with the development in technology, there have emerged tools such as virtual private network, which enables users to access content that may have been blocked at telecom service provider (TSP) or internet service provider (ISP) level.

"In this scenario, blocking of applications at the TSP/ISP level may not be an efficacious solution as users can get around the same with increasing ease. Therefore, the focus on developing mechanism to block content may be unwarranted," Assocham said in a letter to the top-most government official at DoT, which was also sent to other senior civil servants.

Assocham has buttressed its arguments against blocking of mobile apps by stating that online apps contribute substantially to India’s digital economy. Overall the Internet eco-system is expected to contribute up to $ 537.4 billion to overall India’s GDP of which a minimum of $ 270.9 billion could be attributed to apps, Assocham has pointed out quoting market research

Recently, there have been widespread incidents of mob lynching in the country based on rumours spread through social media apps. The popular messaging app WhatsApp has been in the eye of storm over abuse of its platform for circulation of fake news that resulted in incitement of mob fury.

An IT ministry official, who did not wish to be named, said WhatsApp has not committed itself on "traceability" and attribution of messages, which had been one of the key demands of the government. Hence, the ministry's concerns have not been addressed and the potential for misuse still remains, the source was quoted by PTI.

Last month, the government had expressed dissatisfaction over measures previously listed by WhatsApp for checking fake news that have, in several cases, triggered mob violence. WhatsApp told the government it was building a local team, including India head, as part of steps to check fake news circulation.

Over the last one year, the Indian government has been exploring various avenues to regulate online media content, some of them botched at the initial stage, while some like the setting up of a social media hub to monitor Indians’ digital footprints was scrapped by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting after Supreme Court questioned the proposal stating whether it could lead to a surveillance state. However, a government body still exists that has the mandate to look into online media norms.

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