February 11, 2023 | By Sikh Siyasat Bureau
Chandigarh :- “The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a weakening of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression” reads a note by UNESCO, which further adds “some governments have adopted laws to fight disinformation, not always in line with International Human Rights Law”.
UN Secretary General António Guterres in his writeup for The Guardian observed: “The virus is also infecting political and civil rights, and further shrinking civic space. Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and restrict the activities of nongovernmental organisations”.
These ‘observations’ from world’s top offices show that COVID was used by States to adversely affect ‘freedom of expression’. India is no exception in this regard. Instances of invoking “information blocking law” (Section 69A of IT Act 2000) has increased manifold in India since COVID-19 struck the peninsula in early 2020.
According to disclosure by GoI’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in the Indian Parliament blocking instances jumped almost three times in 2020 as compared to 2019.
In response to MP Karti P. Chidambaram’s question Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chadrasekhar said in a written reply “blocking [of] a total of 2,799; 3,635; 9,949; 6096 and 6775 URLs during the years 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022, respectively”.
Analysis of Available Data:
A brief analysis of this data shows that blocking instances were already rising before the pandemic but it steeped manyfold in the pandemic year 2020. In 2019 the blocking instances witnessed a 30% increase as compared to 2018. But in 2020, there was an increase of 171% as compared to 2019.
Another significant factor relieved by this data analysis is that the combined figure of blocking instances for two years (2021 and 2022) following the pandemic year of 2020 are double that of two of 2020’s previous years (2018 and 2019). Total number of ‘URLs’ blocked in 2021 and 2022 were 12869 which is double than 6434, a combined figure of the number of URLs blocked in 2018 and 2019.
COVID’s Long Lasting Impact on Blocking of Information in India:
Indian media reports often say that in 2020, the government blocked several posts on social media that were critical to its handling of pandemic. It implies a suggestion that the rise in blocking instances in 2020 was due to blocking of pandemic related posts. As the Government of India (GoI) does not release information providing details regarding classification of blocked platforms it is not possible to analyze the exact impact of pandemic on blocking platforms that were blocked for reasons other than their pandemic reporting. High number of blocking instances for year 2022 (two years after pandemic year) show that the hike in blocking was not limited to year 2020 and ‘pandemic posts’ excuse may have left a long lasting impact.
Figures Technically Misleading:
The figures given by the minister turn misleading in wake of use of the term “URL”. A URL or ‘Uniform Resource Locator’ is an address which leads to a particular webpage. A website contains a domain name URL which directs the user to the website’s homepage from where the user can access other web pages of the website using hyperlinks to other URLs of the same website. When the domain name URL of a website is blocked it leads to blocking of all URLs of that website. Therefore the number of “URLs” given by the minister does not denote the exact number of ‘URL’ blockages.
For example, on 6 June 2020 GoI blocked Sikh Siyasat News’ website (sikhsiyasat.net) in India. In the government’s figures one ‘URL’ i.e. sikhsiyasat.net is blocked but the fact is that this domain name has more than 14,000 posts (news, articles, etc), and each post has its’ own Uniform Resource Locator (URL) which comprises the domain name url as its’ starting point. Then there are other URLs of this website, such as author, category, tags, media URLs etc. So, blocking of just one url ‘sikhsiyasat.net’ is resulting in blocking of at least 15000 URLs.
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Related Topics: COVID-19