This article originally appeared on VICE India
India's three largest youth-led environmental groups have had their websites blocked, just as they attempt to fight an outrageous loosening of the country's environmental regulations.
The sites are Fridays for Future, which is Greta Thunberg's Indian chapter, along with Let India Breathe and There Is No Earth B. All three found their sites disabled earlier this month without explanation.
According to Fridays for Future and Let India Breathe, their domains were disabled by the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI). The NIXI, which describes itself as a neutral organisation, is chaired by the Indian government’s Secretary of Information Technology.
There is No Earth B stated that their website was blocked on certain servers. Though they have not been given any reason for the block, the landing page showing the error says this is "as per the DoT (Department of Telecommunications) compliance."
The new regulations, proposed in March, will allow industrial projects to proceed before receiving environmental clearance. The revised draft also erases any scope for public whistleblowing and instead suggests that environmental violations should be reported by the violators themselves.
“We were running our campaign [against the draft] on our website letindiabreathe.in since March, and had around 200,000 visitors to the website,” Yash Marwah, the founder of Let India Breathe told VICE News.
The urgency of this movement was due to the short window during which members of the public could offer their comments. The deadline to send in objections and suggestions was May 22, before it was moved to June 30 and later August 10. Challenged by stringent COVID-19 lockdowns, activists moved efforts to oppose the draft online.
Let India Breathe was encouraging people to send a template email drafted to India’s Environment and Forest Minister Prakash Javadekar, among other key authorities.
According to Marwah, many campaigners who tried to bombard the verified email accounts of ministry officials also reported their emails bouncing back.
Under the assumption that the ministry was filtering out emails that doubled up as digital protest signs, Let India Breathe thereafter encouraged people in March to change keywords in the drafts and campaign in different languages. On June 29, their website was blocked.
“We felt it was our duty to engage with the public when the draft consultation for environment impact assessment (EIA) was open and feedback was invited by the government,” Fridays for Future wrote in a statement. It concluded that the website was disabled soon after the organisation opposed the draft. “We launched a feedback process in fridaysforfuture.in but since July 10, 2020, the website has been inaccessible.”
Both these websites are now working with the Internet Freedom Foundation, a net neutrality and internet advocacy organization, to have their sites unblocked.
Meanwhile, There is No Earth B has also put out a statement condemning the block on their website. They are currently working to get their website unblocked through public advocacy, using the IFF-curated hashtag #WhatTheBlock.
After extensive correspondence with the subcontractor of their domain name, GoDaddy, Let India Breathe and Fridays For Future were informed that their domains were disabled by the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) which maintains the registry of .in websites on behalf of the government.
Apar Gupta, the executive director of the IFF, said that this was done without following a due process that required the domain owners to be informed why their website were being blocked, thus preventing them from calling for a legal hearing.
In India, websites can either be blocked through court orders, or through directives from the Union government and its Department of Telecommunications.
Under Section 69A of India’s Information Technology Act, 2000, promoting abuse, piracy, gambling, or selling tobacco products are the main grounds for websites being disabled.
“We have sent the NIXI a legal notice asking for the block to be removed or for an explanation as to why these websites were blocked despite not violating any guidelines by the Ministry of Electronics and Telecommunications,” Apar Gupta, the executive director of the IFF told VICE News. NIXI is yet to respond to the notice.
At various points over the last few months, internet users, especially those in south Indian regions like Bengaluru and Hyderabad, have been unable to access websites including search engine DuckDuckGo, file transfer service WeTransfer, chat forum Reddit and international news websites like BBC and New York Times. These sites were swiftly unblocked after facing public backlash from advocacy groups like the IFF.
“But we aren’t going to let this block back down our movement,” stated Marwah. “Instead of bogging us down, it’s reinforced our spirit to fight for our rights.”
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