Social media apps are displayed in a social media folder on the screen of an Apple Inc. iPhone 6 in this arranged photograph taken in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Telecom Department Seeks Industry Views On Blocking Platforms Like Facebook, WhatsApp In Specific Situations

The union government’s Department of Telecom has sought views of the industry on technical measures that can be adopted for blocking mobile apps like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram etc. in situations where national security and public order are under threat.

The DoT had written to all telecom operators, the Internet Service Providers Association of India, industry body Cellular Operators Association of India and others and asked for their inputs to block the applications under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.

However, there is no such move to block any app and the telecom department started consultation based on a reference from the IT ministry, said a source at DoT, on condition of anonymity.

Section 69A of IT Act pertains to power to issue directions for blocking for public access to any information through any computer resource.

The law authorises the central government, or any officer authorised by it, to issue directions to block 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.

"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 during the second week of July," a DoT official said.

Also read: WhatsApp Testing A Feature To Mark Unusual Links As ‘Suspicious’

In response to the DoT consultation, industry body Assocham said that the 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.

Assocham said that with development in technology, there have emerged tools such as virtual private network which enables users to access content that may have been blocked at the telecom service provider or internet service provider 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 a mechanism to block content may be unwarranted," said Assocham.

There have been widespread incidents of mob lynching in the country based on rumours spread through social media apps recently. 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.

Also read: Lynch Mobs Are India’s Problem, Not WhatsApp’s

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

The IT ministry, in its missive, had said that WhatsApp cannot escape from its responsibility for such rampant abuse of its platform and needed to find originators of provocative messages.

The government, in its second notice to the Facebook-owned messaging service, had warned that in the absence of adequate checks, it will treat the messaging platform as 'abettor' of rumour propagation and legal consequences will follow.

WhatsApp told the government it is building a local team as part of taking steps to check fake news circulation. The mobile messaging platform also said that attributing messages would undermine the private nature of WhatsApp and create the potential for serious misuse. It added that the focus of the firm is on improving its platform and working closely with others in society to help keep people safe.

Also read: Tackle Fake News First, Payments Service Can Wait, India Tells WhatsApp