India tops the list of countries having firewalls and filtering systems to block web pages, reveals a new report. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country have installed the highest number of filtering systems, and have blocked the maximum number of web pages.
According to a new investigation covering 10 countries by University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab along with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and The Indian Express found that India had 42 installations of technology marketed by Canadian company Netsweeper that help in filtering content for national-level, consumer-facing ISPs. These installations were found in internet services offered by 12 ISPs in the country. India also had the highest number of blocked unique URLs at 1,158 out of 2,464. The data being released today accounts only for representative samples of censorship during the testing period between August 2017 and April 2018.
Other than those websites pertaining to porn or privacy, Indian ISPs have been found filtering access to websites and web pages belonging to domestic and foreign NGOs, United Nations organizations, human rights groups, health forums, feminist groups, and political activists at different points during the test period. Reddit India’s twitter handle (@redditindia) and Twitter handles of @anilkohli54, @tajinderbagga and @i_panchajanya, three accounts followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were found blocked at some point or the other during the test period, and instructions to block these Twitter handles are said to have been issued in August 2012.
Indian ISPs also blocked access to web pages of several media companies including those belonging to ABC News, Telegraph (UK), Al Jazeera, Tribune (Pakistan) with some of them dating back to 2012. The investigation also found ISPs filtering content “related to the Rohingya refugee issue, and the deaths of Muslims in Burma and India more generally”, and even snapshots of these content stored in Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine have been found to be blocked.
Among those websites blocked in the country, it is not clear whether their URLs were specifically targeted for the contents or if the IP address was blocked. Citizen Lab notes that in some instances, a blocked page explained the reason why the content was blocked, but in others, the users experienced a time-out, giving a false impression that there is a faulty internet connection or slow server response.
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The report also discovered that some blocked websites found a workaround for censorship in the country by changing their URLs and switching their domain name. “For example, hinduhumanrights.org, the mouthpiece of a UK Hindu group formed ‘in 2000 to highlight cases of persecution and defamation of Hindus and Hinduism around the globe’, is still blocked but it switched to a .info version in 2011.”
Citizen Lab found Bharti Airtel, Hathway, Reliance Jio, Reliance Communications, Tata Communications, Tata Sky Broadband, Telstra Global, Pacific Internet, Net4India, Primesoftex, Hughes Escorts Communication and BSNL’s National Internet Backbone as ISPs using Netsweeper’s technology in India. Major countries around the world have been restricting or limiting content by forcing ISPs to block specific URLs and websites. This report highlights the complexity around such filtering system, and the depth achieved by government organizations.