Why Has the Govt Ordered YouTube To Block National Dastak and Bolta Hindustan?

What is the procedure for blocking YouTube channels like this and did the central government follow it?

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Since the start of April, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) has directed YouTube to block the channels of two Hindi news outlets, sparking concerns of censorship especially with the 2024 Lok Sabha elections being just around the corner.

The two Hindi news outlets that have been directed to be blocked by MIB are 'Bolta Hindustan' and 'National Dastak' which have over 3 lakh subscribers and 94.2 lakh subscribers, respectively.

In emails sent to the owners of these channels, YouTube revealed that the blocking requests it had received from MIB invoked Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and Rule 15(2) of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

"The notice itself is confidential so we are unable to share it with you at this time," YouTube said in its email while adding that MIB was likely to pass a final order in the matter shortly.

However, the legality of MIB's notices directing YouTube to take down these two channels has been called into question, with experts pointing out that the procedure laid down by the law has not been followed properly.


Notices Under Section 69A, Rule 15(2)

On the night of 3 April, editor Samar Raj said that he received YouTube's email giving him a heads-up that the Bolta Hindustan channel might be blocked in compliance with the Section 69A notice from MIB. It also informed him that he could make a representation on the notice before the Ministry.

What is the procedure for blocking YouTube channels like this and did the central government follow it?

Takedown notice from YouTube to Bolta Hindustan.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Similarly, National Dastak put up a screenshot of YouTube's email and wrote, "The government wants to shut down National Dastak. YouTube sent a notice on April 3."

Though it must be clarified that only the YouTube channel of Bolta Hindustan has been taken down (for now) as it may have violated the platform's Terms of Service.

What is the procedure for blocking YouTube channels like this and did the central government follow it?


(Screenshot: YouTube)


Lapses in Procedure

"The editors of these YouTube channels are legally entitled to be heard before the passing of any orders against them, except in the case of an emergency. The procedure for this is specified in Rule 15(5)," Pranesh Prakash, an affiliated fellow at the Yale Information Society Project, told The Quint.

"It is legally unsound to only notify the hosting platform (such as YouTube) except in the case where MIB has made all "reasonable efforts" to identify the publishers of news and current affairs content and has been unable to identify it," he added.

So, did MIB reach out to the editors of National Dastak or Bolta Hindustan in order to hear their side?

National Dastak editor Shambu Kumar Singh as well as Bolta Hindustan's Samar Raj confirmed to The Quint that they had not received any communication from the central government asking them to appear before any committee, as of the time this report was published.

"How can we explain our stand to them? The process has not been followed," Raj said.


Grounds for Issuing Blocking Orders

Under Section 69A of the IT Act, the central government is legally empowered to "block public access to any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource" by issuing directions to intermediaries on the following grounds:

  • interest of sovereignty and integrity of India

  • defence of India

  • security of the State

  • friendly relations with foreign States

  • public order

  • preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to the above

A cursory glance at the type of videos posted by National Dastak on YouTube suggests that it mostly publishes content pertaining to politics, Dalit or Bahujan issues, and current affairs.

"National Dastak raises the voice of the Dalits, backward, and marginalised people of the country. We report on their issues. The government has a problem with this," the news organisation's editor Shambhu Kumar Singh was quoted as saying by Mooknayak.

Additionally, Bolta Hindustan's Samar Raj told The Quint that MIB's directive to block their YouTube channel was a political decision. Political content is not anti-national or anti-India content, he asserted.


Reasons for Blocking Concealed

Furthermore, MIB has concealed the specific reasons why these channels are being blocked. "YouTube's email did not have any mention of any specific video or URL. It just had the link to our YouTube channel. We don't understand why it was blocked," Raj said.

In the Supreme Court's 2015 Shreya Singhal judgment, the apex court ruled that when it comes to Section 69A orders, "reasons have to be recorded in writing in such blocking order so that they may be assailed in a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution."

"This seems to imply that the blocking order and the reasons therefor need to be available to the public such that they may be assailed in a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution," Pranesh Prakash opined.

He also argued that Section 69A blocking orders should be made public, citing the Anuradha Bhasin case concerning internet shutdown orders in Jammu & Kashmir as precedent.

According to Prakash, the Centre had claimed that it could not produce internet shutdown orders as they kept changing.

But the Supreme Court had reportedly rejected this reasoning, citing two reasons:

1. "A democracy, which is sworn to transparency and accountability, necessarily mandates the production of orders as it is the right of an individual to know. Moreover, fundamental rights itself connote a qualitative requirement wherein the State has to act in a responsible manner to uphold Part III of the Constitution and not to take away these rights in an implied fashion or in casual and cavalier manner."

2. "That there is not only a normative expectation under the Constitution, but also a requirement under natural law, that no law should be passed in a clandestine manner."

Notably, the constitutional validity of the IT Rules has been challenged in court by several petitioners including The Quint. Recently, the Supreme Court transferred this batch of petitions to the Delhi High Court where the matter is expected to be taken up next.

Another petition before the Delhi High Court seeks directions for the central government to put Section 69A blocking orders in the public domain or at the very least, give a copy of such an order to the user who is being blocked.


A Blocking Spree

The government-ordered blocking of social media handles and taking down of specific content without any warning has increased significantly in recent years.

In March 2024, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) directed YouTube to block a CBC News documentary that focused on the Indian government's alleged role in the assassination of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil.

X (formerly Twitter) was also reportedly ordered by MEITY to disable posts related to the documentary.

Having said that, intermediaries like YouTube or X do not have much of a choice in complying with such government orders as failing to do so would mean that they lose their legal immunity under Section 79 of the IT Act, 2000.

Google's latest Transparency Report shows that after Russia and Taiwan, India saw the most number of government takedown requests from January to June 2023.

In this period, YouTube received over 1,227 government takedown requests resulting in around 7,068 pieces of content to be blocked on the platform.

In total, around 2,191 requests were made across all of Google's products which led to action against 11,417 pieces of content, as per the Transparency Report. The report also revealed that Google complied with government requests to take down 53.5 percent of items.

Meanwhile, Congress on 8 April, said that it had raised the issue of government-ordered blocking of YouTube channels before the Election Commission. The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) also issued a statement condemning the blocking orders.

Raj further claimed that no FIR had been registered over any of Bolta Hindustan's videos so far. He said that he would appeal the decision before MIB and would move court in the absence of any relief.

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