FULL TEXT: Assocham calls move to block FB, WhatsApp “excessive, unnecessary”

Assocham, one of India’s prominent associations of industries, has expressed concern at the government’s proposal to put in place a mechanism to block apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram.

The government has, in a confidential letter sent to internet service providers, asked them to suggest ways in which such apps can be blocked at India’s boundaries or gateways.

However, Assocham said such a move would be disproportionate and unnecessary, and harmful to India’s emerging digital economy.

The following is the full text of the letter written by Assocham Secretary General DS Rawat to Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary, Department of Telecom, Government of India.

The Department of Telecom of the Government of India requested industry inputs on the possible options of blocking applications by Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in a letter dated 18 July 2018.

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) is one of the apex trade associations of India. The organisation represents the interests of trade and commerce in India, and acts as an interface between issues and initiatives. The goal of this organisation is to promote both domestic and international trade, and reduce trade barriers while fostering conducive environment for the growth of trade and industry of India. Several of ASSOCHAM’s members are key constituents of the digital ecosystem and are committed to working with the government to realise the vision of a Digital India. In order to realise this vision, what is needed is a clear and predictable legal framework grounded on fairness, proportionality, and the rule of law.

Within this framework, we are of the opinion that the proposed measure to evolve mechanisms to block applications as a whole at the TSP-level is excessive, unnecessary, and would greatly harm India’s reputation as a growing hub of innovation in technology. We have highlighted our reasons for the same as below. We remain committed to further engaging with you on this issue and providing any other assistance that may be needed:

Fundamental Reform of the Regulatory Approach

Under the present framework, the Information Technology Act and Telegraph Act regimes provide mechanisms for the issuance of orders relating to blocking, interception, decryption, etc. However, there are presently no effective safeguards to ensure checks on the exercise of these powers. Further there is no channel of regular stakeholder consultation in relation to their exercise. The result is that blocking orders are often overbroad, have unintended consequences such as blanket outages and end up causing serious tangible harm to economic and consumer interests.

These existing mechanisms require to be reviewed, strengthened and reformed, so as to make them more responsive and accountable. These frameworks also need to be reviewed so that they account for developments in technology and business models. This is necessary to arrive at a balance between the state interests in the regulation of online content, and the need to provide a conducive environment to facilitate growth of the Indian digital ecosystem.

Existing Content Moderation Measures

The disproportionality and lack of necessity of application-level blocking is accentuated by improvements to internal mechanisms that have been developed by various platforms to respond to complaints; block or remove content and disable access to content that is unlawful, illegal or falls afoul of community standards. Platforms and other organisations including start-ups are also working on utilising new technological paradigms such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to make these measures more effective and accurate.

It must be noted that these measures have been deployed over and above the obligations created by the IT Act and Rules on Intermediaries. As far as these obligations are concerned, intermediaries have appointed grievance officers, and regularly taken steps to expeditiously remove content or block access, when in receipt of a valid request (as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the Shreya Singhal case). The compliance efforts taken in this regard are also documented by several intermediaries through periodic transparency reports. Organisations including Google, Facebook, and Twitter regularly publish high-level information to demonstrate compliance with various types of legal requests.

These efforts have resulted in year-on-year improvements in compliance rates – a trend that has been acknowledged by various government stakeholders including the Ministry of Home Affairs. Thus the above measures create a robust content regulation and take-down framework, making the blocking of applications unnecessary.

Emergence of Blocking-Circumvention Methods

With the development in technology, there have emerged tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPN), which allow users to normal channels of internet traffic. This permits them to access content that may have been blocked at the TSP/ISP level. A 2018 survey of internet usage suggested that at least 25% of worldwide internet users use or have, at least once, used a VPN service.

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 mechanisms to block content may be unwarranted. Instead, efforts must focus on improving stakeholder engagement on these issues, recognising content moderation policies of platforms and increased capacity-building to improve on-the-ground enforcement against originators of unlawful content

Economic Harms of Blocking

While considering blocking of entire applications, it is imperative to consider its impacts on the economy as a whole. Online applications contribute much to the digital economy in the country. A recent study by ICRIER estimated that applications contributed a minimum of USD 20 billion (INR 1357 billion) in 2015-16 to India’s GDP. Overall, the Internet ecosystem is expected to contribute up to USD 537.4 billion to India’s GDP in 2020, of which a minimum of USD 270.9 billion (Rs. 18275.9 billion) could be attributed to apps.

Consequently; blocking of applications will in the long run threaten the economic contributions that the app economy makes to India. Blanket blocking is, in general, also not conducive to digital growth, as evidenced by the fact that internet shutdowns cost the Indian economy approximately USD 3.04 billion during the period 2012-17°. Overly broad, extended, or frequent blocks would also run directly counter to the government’s stated objective of facilitating the emergence of a new Digital India.

Consumer Interest

Besides these considerations, it is vital to consider the interests of the consumers whose everyday lives may be disrupted despite having no role in the publication or circulation of unlawful content. Broad blocking measures will adversely impact online usage of innocent consumers, who neither produce not consumer illegal or unlawful content.’ Their ordinary communication, correspondence and commerce will be affected. Application blocking may also amount to a violation of the fundamental right to speech and expression, and information of these consumers.

In this context, it must be ensured that any regulatory measures are targeted, narrowly applied and necessary. Blocking of applications do not fulfil these requirements, which can be inferred from the experience of jurisdictions such as Brazil and Pakistan which has shown that application level or website-level blocking at service provider is technically complicated and sometimes infeasible – affecting a large number of innocent users in the process.

Often, blocking efforts may also have global consequences — affecting internet traffic in an entire region or continent. In addition, internet-filtering technologies and techniques often strain resource of telecom operators and result in secondary harms for networks as a whole.

On the basis of the above factors, regulatory efforts must target the improvement of the present system, and focus on devising a better take-down system, instead of employing disproportionate measures which have broad and unintended consequences.

ASSOCHAM is committed to working with the government to develop balanced approaches to content regulation which help control the circulation of unlawful content while at the same time not harming legitimate interests of other users. We look forward to further assisting you going forward in this regard.”