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What really led to the Vimeo blocking?

Last updated on: July 05, 2012 14:53 IST
Delhi-based cyber advocacy organisation SFLC.in has obtained an RTI reply from State-run MTNL which has revelaed the truth about the indiscriminate blocking of web sites in April, reports Shivam Vij

A Right to Information reply from Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd shows that the blocking of sites like vimeo.com in April this year was caused not so much by a court order as by its over-interpretation by a Chennai lawyer.

In April this year, websites like vimeo.com and patebin.com were found blocked by many internet users in India. Some internet service providers said the sites were blocked on order from the department of telecommunications, but it emerged they were blocked because of court orders.

The Madras high court had given orders to prevent the piracy and copyright infringement of the films 3 and Dhammu. The order was against ISPs and 'Ashok Kumar', a stand-in name for anyone who would infringe copyright.

Armed with this order, the lawyer, LH Harish Ram of Copyright Labs, Chennai, representing the makers of the two films sent notices to ISPs across the country asking them to block offending URLs. When the ISPs blocked popular sites like Vimeo, Ram wrote on his Twitter account that he had not asked for the entire URLs to be blocked but only specific URLs where infringement was taking place.

However, Delhi-based cyber advocacy organisation SFLC.in 
has obtained an RTI reply from State-run MTNL which has revelaed the truth. Contrary to what Ram claimed on Twitter, his letter about Dhammu clearly asks for 272 URLs to be blocked and these are complete URLs, not specific webpages. A copy of Ram's letter is available at http://softwarefreedom.in/attachments/article/144/Letter_CopyrightLabs.pdf. On June 15 the Madras high court took note of the controversy and clarified that only those URLs which are infringing copyright can be blocked, not entire websites.

It was only with the furore around the blocking of Vimeo that ISPs unblocked Vimeo and other sites weeks later. Prasanth Sugathan of SFLC.in
says, "The order restrains the ISPs as well as unknown persons from infringing the copyright or allowing others to infringe. The order does not have any direction on blocking of websites. SFLC.in had contacted Harish Ram, CEO of Copyright Labs and he assured us that they have only asked the ISPs to block specific URLs that are infringing on their copyright. However, we filed a RTI request to verify this and the copy of the letter that they have sent to ISPs shows that  what he said is not true. Their action in asking for blocking of entire websites is a mis-representation of a judicial order to cause indiscriminate blocking of these web-services throughout the country." 

However, Harish Ram said on the phone from Chennai that he had in a matter of two-three days sent another notice to block only the specific URLs. That, however, does not explain why the sites remained blocked for weeks, or why he had asked for entire URLs to be blocked in the first place. In fact one of them, Piratebay, is still blocked by most ISPs. Pilloried by many users on Twitter for what they saw as irresponsible behaviour, Ram recently left Twitter.


Sugathan of SFLC.in says he has filed another RTI with MTNL to get copies of all letters sent by Ram, and that penalties must be imposed for causing inconvenience to internet users. Sugathan added, "The ISPs have chosen not to take a risk and have over-complied with the high court order by blocking entire websites instead of taking down only the infringing content. The uncertainty that is prevailing  about the safe harbour provisions, thanks to the  problematic Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 and the pending cases against Google and Facebook could have prompted them to take the safer option than to stand up for the rights of their users. This does not bode well for internet freedom in India and is an ominous sign of things to come."
Shivam Vij in New Delhi