YouTube is blocking the BBC documentary India’s Daughter thanks to a request by the government. The move is also in compliance with the order passed by the Delhi High Court, which has said that the video cannot be “uploaded, transmitted and published” since it could trigger law and order problems in the country.
Clearly, the Internet-savvy Indians seem to disagree with the court order. Restricting the flow of information, either by stopping broadcasts or banning physical books, is today an analogue problem. Given the porous digital borders, the government would find it difficult to block the documentary. Users will continue to upload the film, with many file names using the word ‘banned’ in the titles. Yet, the government could block entire websites like it did to restrict pro-ISIS content in 2014, invoking Section 69A of the Indian Information Technology Act 2000, which allows blocking public access to Internet content when India’s sovereignty, or public order, is threatened. The J&K government had resorted to similar measures in 2012 when it tried to stop online circulation of the controversial anti-Islamic video The Innocence of Muslims. At that time, the government used Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, another instrument to maintain public order. Indeed, India could potentially shut down the Internet as Egypt did in 2011 when President Hosni Mubarak grew nervous of growing protests against his government.
India’s Daughters isn’t about terrorism, communal disharmony or political protest. The brutal rape it refers to had brought the country to a standstill. And now, outraged that they are not allowed to watch the documentary, Indians are using the Internet to challenge the ban.
Such public support could trigger consequences for netizens individually. Legally, under Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act 2000, anyone who sends an ‘offensive message’ (such as a link to the video) through communication services, causing ‘annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult… or ill will’ is liable to be arrested. One could face up to three years in prison and a fine.
That brings us to an interesting conundrum. Recent headlines have highlighted the face-off between the government and the BBC, which went ahead and aired the documentary in Britain. Though the BBC, a foreign media channel, will not broadcast it in India pursuant to the court order, reports suggest that the government may ‘take further action’ against the BBC for broadcasting the documentary. India might even try to restrict it from being telecast in other countries. How that will play out will be interesting. Indian court orders do not apply in the international jurisdiction. But they do here. So the next question to ask is, how will India react within its own borders and bandwidth, with its own citizens?
In India, freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, albeit with reasonable restrictions, and it is not a right that ought to be restricted so easily. Unfortunately, in our democracy, the unfolding India’s Daughter incident certainly feels like yet another instance of hiding the truth behind the law. Resorting to a ban puts a positively active and engaged citizenry highly susceptible to arrests. Are these the fights we want to fight?
Mahima Kaul is head, Cyber and Media Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal