It's Official: Viewing a Blocked Site Isn't Illegal in India

It's Official: Viewing a Blocked Site Isn't Illegal in India
  • Bombay High Court described John Doe orders as over-broad
  • Viewing a blocked page is not by itself illegal
  • A court session later this month will review better solutions

After a period of some uncertainty, the Bombay High Court has made it clear that just viewing a blocked webpage is not going to see you in jail.

A report on the legal news publication SpicyIP notes a new order by Justice Patel of the Bombay High Court that clarified the court's earlier order and asked ISPs to clear up the misleading language on blocked pages.

Earlier, the court had ordered ISPs to show a more detailed block message so as to actually inform users about why a site is blocked, and on whose orders. The court had also ordered that the message mention the provisions of the copyright act.

(Also see: No You Won't Go To Jail for Just Visiting a Blocked Website)

Tata had argued in court that it would not be technically feasible to do so, and in turn had led to the message that was seen by people, warning that viewing blocked pages was against the copyright act, and therefore something you could go to jail for. This was of course not the case.

"Visiting any website, even if it is a blocked site, is not illegal either under the provisions of the Copyright Act, 1957 or the Information Technology Act, 2000," explained Prasanth Sugathan, Counsel at the Software Freedom Law Centre India, a registered society that works on the intersections of law and technology. "The only exception could be if a person views child pornography."

Some media reports at the time however misunderstood the statement, and created an unnecessary controversy. These reports stirred up needless fears, but served to bring the matter back to the court's attention.

In the new order, Justice Patel has asked all ISPs to replace the misleading error message, stating:

“The offence is not in viewing, but in making a prejudicial distribution, a public exhibition or letting for sale or hire without appropriate permission copyright–protected material. These error pages appear to have confused the penal provisions regarding obscenity with penalties under the Copyright Act, 1957.”

The updated message makes this very clear:

“This URL has been blocked under instructions of a competent Government Authority or in compliance with the orders of a Court of competent jurisdiction. Infringing or abetting infringement of copyright-protected content including under this URL is an offence in law. Ss. 63, 63-A, 65 and 65-A of the Copyright Act, 1957, read with Section 51, prescribe penalties of a prison term of upto 3 years and a fine of upto Rs.3 lakhs. Any person aggrieved by the blocking of this URL may contact the Nodal Officer at xyz@[isp-domain] for details of the blocking order including the case number, court or authority to be approached for grievance redressals. Emails will be answered within two working days. Only enquiries regarding the blocking will be entertained.”

In the order, the judge also noted that John Doe orders are "often over-broad", and "granted without sufficient checking of a plaintiff's claim". Whether this has long term implications for blocking of sites in India is unclear at this point, but Justice Patel will be holding a review on September 23 to examine what better solutions are available to the issue.


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