Websites of three of India’s biggest youth-led environmental advocacy movements that have been leading online campaigns against a much-criticised draft order were blocked between June 29 and July 10.
According to the website owners, 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.
The three websites are fridaysforfuture.in, letindiabreathe.in and thereisnoearthb.in. Fridays for Future is the India chapter of 17-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg-led global climate strike movement, while Let India Breathe and There Is No Earth B are volunteer-based movements that mostly involve students.
These environmental organisations were at the forefront of the movement opposing India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s proposed Draft Environmental Assessment Impact (EIA) Notification 2020.
The 2006 EIA notification, which the draft proposes to replace, states that the government must examine how a proposed industrial project affects the environment before it is given clearance.
The new notification, proposed in March 2020, would give post-facto project clearance to industrial prokets. This will allow industries to be set up projects before they get an environmental clearance. Activists worry this could legitimise projects that already violated environmental conditions.
There is also no scope for public complaints in the revised draft, which proposes that environmental violations should be disclosed by the violators themselves.
“We were running our campaign [opposing the EIA] on our website letindiabreathe.in since March, and had around 200,000 visitors to the website,” Yash Marwah, the founder of LetIndiaBreathe told VICE News.
The urgency of this movement was due to the short window during which members of the public could offer their comments on the draft. The deadline to send in objections and suggestions was May 20, 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.
LetIndiaBreathe was powering a digital campaign through their website which encouraged people to send an email drafted to India’s Environment and Forest Minister Prakash Javadekar, and other key authorities. The email detailed how implementing the draft EIA posed a grave threat to India’s biodiversity and pollution levels through a link on their website.
According to Marwah, many campaigners who tried to bombard the verified email accounts of environment ministry officials reported that their mails bounced back.
Under the assumption that the ministry was filtering out emails that doubled up as digital protest signs, LetIndiaBreathe 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,” said a statement by Fridays for Future, India. It concluded that the website was disabled soon after the organisation opposed the EIA. “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 get 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, LetIndiaBreathe 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 requires the domain owners to be informed why their website is blocked, thus preventing them from calling for a legal hearing on the matter.
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.
The Supreme Court, in a judgement on January 10, 2020, had directed the government to publicly declare why people’s access to the internet is blocked.
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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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.