By Priya Adlakha and Pranit Biswas
In a recent case, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court vide its order in the case Tanul Thakur v. Union of India1 , has directed the Committee constituted by MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) under the Blocking Rules, 2009 to give a post-decisional hearing to the Petitioner for corrective measures and to provide a copy of the original blocking order to the website’s owner.
Democracy and censorship are theoretically incompatible concepts. Censorship in democracy defeats the mere idea/ notion of democracy. Democracy entails certain important freedoms, with one of the most important and revered ones being the right to freedom of expression. Censorship in any form (whether arguably justified or unjustified) certainly steps on the toes of the idea of democracy, and as such, any move made by democratically elected governments to impose censorship is met with much scrutiny and distrust.
In India, while Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution solemnizes this invaluable freedom in perpetuity, the same is tempered by Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which subjects such fundamental rights to “reasonable restrictions”, namely “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”. In this regard, restrictions borne out of “public order, decency or morality” are perhaps the most susceptible to misuse by the Government.
In this background, it is apt to discuss India’s IT (Blocking Rules), 2009, under which, inter alia, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has the power to block websites as well. In this regard, one of the more controversial provisions of the Rules is Rule 16, under which MeitY can claim confidentiality while blocking websites. This issue boiled over recently in May 2022, when the Hon’ble Delhi Court passed an order in the saga regarding the blocking of the website www.dowrycalculator.com/
The Petitioner in the case had alleged that his satirical website namely “Dowry Calculator” was blocked by the Respondents (MeitY) without following the prescribed procedure, as no notice was issued or hearing was taken before blocking the Petitioner’s impugned website.
The aggrieved party, one Mr. Tanul Thakur, a film critic and journalist, had created a website www.dowrycalculator.com/ (domain being registered in 2011), satirical in nature. A screenshot of the said website is copied below:
In this website, one could select options from the above drop-downs to get an amount of “dowry” they are eligible for. The contents of the website were clearly satirical. Even before the lawsuit came into the picture, there were however public complaints from personalities such as Mr. Jyotiraditya Scindia (a member of the ruling political party BJP) and Mrs. Maneka Gandhi (a prominent activist), who had purportedly written to the Government and sought action against the website and its creator. However, the creator nevertheless persisted with the satirical website and the website was operational up until 2019, when it came to notice that the website was blocked by the DOT (Department of Telecom).
Due to this, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a digital liberties organization purportedly filed an RTI (Right To Information) application, seeking a reason/ justification for the blocking of the website.3 Eventually, the petitioner, Mr. Thakur, being so aggrieved by the actions of the DOT/ MeitY, filed a writ petition W.P.(C) 13037/2019 before the Hon’ble Delhi High Court.
Court’s observation and direction in the case
While the case is still ongoing, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court recently vide its order dated March 21, 2022, directed the government to share the order on the basis of which the subject website has been blocked, and also directed that the Petitioner be afforded a hearing, as per the provisions of the Information Technology (Procedure and safeguards for blocking of access of information by public) Rules, 2009.
While the order may prima facie seem insignificant, insofar as the fact that the case is still going on is concerned, its importance stems from the fact that this is seemingly the first time that the government has been directed by the judiciary to provide information in such cases. This counts as a check and balance to unfettered exercise of the IT (Blocking Rules), 2009, signifying that, at the least, an opportunity to be heard has to be provided to the owner/creator by the MeitY before blocking any website.
After all, if satire can be curbed, then the sky is the limit for censorship. It would thus be interesting to see how this saga unfolds.
W.P.(C) 13037/2019 & CM No.53165/2019