How Bollywood Broke the Internet Archive

On August 7, the Indian government blocked access to the Internet Archive — the web’s largest nonprofit library, consisting of millions of free books, movies, music, software and websites. And nobody knew why — until yesterday.

The producers of two recent Bollywood Films — Jab Harry Met Sejal and Lipstick Under My Burkha — approached the courts in order to try and stop 2,600 websites from distributing pirated copies of the films. Internet Archive was one of them.

A Song and Dance Over Censorship // The Practice of Content Filtering in India

So what impact did this have for average users? A number of individuals on Twitter reported encountering this error message from the Indian Department of Telecommunications when trying to log onto the Internet Archive:

Indian users are familiar with this error message every time their ISPs are instructed by the government to block a website. Source: @MhaskarChief

The site is blocked on several ISP and telecom networks (listed here). This isn’t the first time Indian citizens have been confronted by this message. Between January and June 2017, 735 social media URLs and 596 websites were blocked by the Indian government under Section 69A of the IT Act (2000). Typically, filtered content includes pornographic content, content that could incite violence, or websites deemed to pose a threat to national security. The act has also been used to remove content on Facebook. India has been among the countries topping the table for the high numbers of content restriction requests made to Facebook in the last few years, topping the rankings in 2014 and 2015.

The Internet Archive was previously blocked in an ‘anti-terrorism measure’ in 2014, alongside Github and Vimeo. The national head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT Cell, Arvind Gupta, tweeted that the websites had been instructed to take down “anti-India content” posted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The National Head of the ruling party’s ‘IT cell’ attempts to justify the filtering of the Internet Archive, Github, and Vimeo. Source: @buzzindelhi

But on that occasion, all of the listed sites had received notice from the Department of Telecommunications. This time, they were taken down without any notice.

More often than not in India, websites are simply taken down without warning, and questions about the origin, rationale, or duration of the block order are not answered — as in the case of the Internet Archive. Also problematic is the fact that the block orders issued to ISPs by the Department of Telecommunications are not published anywhere on its website.

India does not have a clear policy or a well-defined strategy to block access to online content. Currently, when a Nodal Officer receives a complaint, they subsequently send it to a Designated Officer who examines the content and notifies the persons or intermediary hosting it. This intermediary or individual can respond within 48 hours to an Examination Committee, whose recommendations are used by the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) to decide whether to block a website or not. But if matters concern a public emergency, the Designated Officer can directly send a request to the DoIT, asking them to block access to content without providing an opportunity for the other party to be heard.

In that case, the blockade of Internet Archive would imply that the government sees the site’s content as posing a threat to Indian democracy or public safety — quite a stretch for an online archive. So what motives are really at work here?

The Internet Archive has been a useful tool to circumvent government censorship as it provides access to archived or deleted pages. As such, in authoritarian regimes where content is removed or access is blocked, Internet Archive takes on the role of a valuable resource for accessing restricted content. However, we quickly came to realise that the Indian government was not acting out of a desire to limit freedom of expression online for purely political purposes.

On August 9, the Internet Archive team received a response to their request for clarification from the Indian Government, accompanied by two court orders by the Madras High Court — the source of the block. The order lists 2,600 websites to be blocked for distributing two films — Jab Harry met Sejal and Lipstick under my Burkha. It seems the Internet Archive was blocked for allegedly carrying pirated movies. But how did these orders come to be?

Ashok Kumar, Bollywood Superstar // The Film Industry and Content Filtering in India

This is certainly not the first time the Indian government has intervened in a heavy-handed manner to crack down on online piracy in defence of Bollywood. In 2011, filesharing sites were blocked by ISPs to prevent copyright infringement of the movie Singham. The block was instituted after the Delhi High Court passed a John Doe (or ‘Ashok Kumar’) order against the unknown pirates.

The Singham case was the first time an ‘Ashok Kumar’ order was passed against ISPs, though in the past they had been used against cable operators. Instead of blocking the sub-domain pages that hosted the offending content, entire domains were blocked. This blockade was imposed again a month later as a preemptive measure against piracy with the release of the blockbuster Don 2.

This set a trend of movie producers approaching courts to request Ashok Kumar orders ahead of film releases:

A List of Movies that have approached courts for Ashok Kumar orders

Medianama noted that ISPs are an easy target for content owners as they serve as intermediaries for accessing content. Imposing block orders on ISPs is an effective way of restricting access to online content. Movie production houses have been the most active in getting Ashok Kumar orders passed ahead of the release of major movie releases. Since most movies tend to make 70 percent of their collections in the first weekend or so, studios view it as increasingly imperative to block all pirated channels at least in the first week or so of a movie’s release.

In July 2016, the Bombay High Court declined two Ashok Kumar orders noting the problematic nature of their implementation, blocking entire domains when only particular subdomains harbour problematic content. This blockade is also currently enforced without any assessment of the content on the rest of the domain — thereby restricting access to a whole range of legitimate content.

The current blockade against Internet Archive is part of the film industry’s heavy-handed anti-piracy strategy. The restrictions were only valid for a week, and have reportedly now been lifted. But where is the natural end point for these controls? Bollywood is a massive industry that churns out hundreds of films every year, and as such there is a real danger that these blockades will only occur more and more frequently in the future.

Improvements to the regulatory process could do much to limit the worst excesses of the filtering system. Greater transparency and compliance in the reviewing process, instead of a blanket ban on suspect domains would be welcome. Decisions such as that from the Bombay High Court are encouraging, and there is reason to be hopeful that the Indian judiciary will decide that reform of the review system is necessary in order to protect access to information.

As they say in Bollywood: “Picture abhi baaki hain mere dost” — the film is not over yet, my friend.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are the Bombay High Court’s orders in full:

Jab Harry Met Sejal

Lipstick Under My Burkha

Open & Shut is a project from the Small Media team. Small Media are an organisation working to support freedom of information in closed societies, and developed the Iran Open Data portal .

Cover image by skp, story edited by James Marchant.

Like what you read? Give Harsha Devulapalli a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.