The Bachchao Project in partnership with OONI hosted an online event on 9th and 10th October 2021 to update the Citizen Lab test list for India. The event, which was called “India, Lets build the list”, was organised to help strengthen community based monitoring of internet censorship in India. The event allowed experts from different fields to contribute to a curated list of websites that are relevant to India and which are regularly tested for censorship by volunteers in India.
Censorship in India, specifically online, has been evolving steadily since the notification of the Information Technology Act of of 2000 and its associated rules. Though the Act itself offers multiple ways in which the Government can remove content and/or block access to content (including shutting down internet services), very little data is available to confirm if due process is regularly followed in these matters. This raises serious concerns about its impact on Indian citizens’ right to freedom of expression and access to information.
While many such blocked sites may fall in the expected categories of illegal streaming, adult content, file sharing etc., research has also shown that internet censorship in India also impacts a wide variety of other sites, such as news media and human rights sites.This list building and monitoring activity is therefore crucial for us as citizens and as a community of digtal rights practioners to safeguard the essence of a free internet and uphold the rule of law.
One open software project that aims to increase transparency of internet censorship (and other forms of network interference) around the world is Open Observatory of Network Interface (OONI). To this end, the project builds free and open source software – called OONI Probe – designed to measure various forms of network interference.
A recent study used the OONI Probe testing software to measure the blocking of websites in various states in India (such as Manipur and Bangalore) from January 2019 to January 2020. It found that while 136 sites from the Citizen Lab test list for India were confirmed to be blocked, the major decrepancies in access were between ISPs rather than between regions. A large number of media outlets seemed to be targeted for blocking as well.
As of now, a relatively small community in India reviews and contributes to the Citizen Lab test list for India, which means that it’s entirely possible that we are not looking at all the possible thematic areas in which website censorship may be happening.
It therefore becomes essential that more people from varied backgrounds and fields of interest support such open source testing for censorship. By reviewing and contributing to the the Citizen Lab test list for India, you can help ensure that a broad range of relevant websites are tested, and that the censorship measurement data collected from the testing of these websites is more comprehensive, robust, and timely. This will enable citizens to ask important questions to lawmakers and even mount legal challenges when necessary.
To this end, on Day 1 of our 2-day workshop, our OONI partners facilitated a session (“Introduction to Internet censorship”) which introduced participants to key concepts around internet censorship and how website censorship is implemented, with the goal of ultimately highlighting the importance of contributing to the Citizen Lab lists of websites that are measured for internet censorship. For the purpose
s of this workshop, the following forms of censorship were kept out of our scope:
- Censorship on social media platforms
- Internet outages/blackouts/shutdowns
- Takedown requests
- Online trolling
We used these two days to specifically look at websites that may have been or could be at risk of being blocked by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) . The group discussed the recent history of internet censorship specifically related to blocking of sites under Section 69 (A) and Section 79 of the IT Act . We also reviewed existing research and public advocacy efforts with regards to internet censorship in India.
The concept of the Citizen Lab Global Test List and India Test List, both hosted on Github, was introduced to the group. These lists are compiled and maintained as a voluntary global effort to monitor website
A review of this list showed that the list was not balanced in terms of URLs in each category. The list also needed an update based on recent events in the country. Our workshop was specifically aimed at rectifying this and making the list more comprehensive & inclusive of the myriad concerns of citizens of our country.
A few of the participants shared their own experience with state censorship and their work on these issues. One of them presented a list that they had compiled by testing for DNS hijacking of sites specifically on the ACT Fibernet. Another participant found that many official government websites are not accessible to people outside the nation and shared their own work on creating a proxy to allow researchers and others to access Indian government websites from other countries.Geo-blocking prevents archival by the Internet Archive, which many researchers depend on. Participants also shared their experience of studying the issue of internet access in conflict zones in India and that even though access to the internet is recognized as a human right, it is often on the very bottom of the priority list for communities who are facing very intense threats on the ground. They also shared that being able to help these communities understand that the role the internet can play in responding to some of the other threats they face (and the tools to enable this, while foregrounding their safety needs) had been a very positive, empowering experience for all involved.
To end Day 1, we dove into the methodology of list building and list pruning which was developed and presented to the group by our friends at Netallitica. This session was specifically aimed to prepare us for Day 2 during which we (the organizers and the attendees) split into groups and co-worked on updating the India test list.
We started Day 2 with practical inputs on how to make changes to this list, important points to remember so that anyone who looks at this list later to test or to clean it understands what changes have been made and why. Our partners from OONI also showcased their beta tool which will make updating the Citizen Lab test lists much easier (through a web platform, without requiring GitHub accounts), once it’s launched.
A total of 10 participants split into two online co-working groups and selected a single theme to work on for 30-minute hands-on sessions each. The participants selected themes based on their area of knowledge and interest and also on how much information the list for that theme already contained. The focus was to make each theme list cover a wider base making it representative of platforms/ sources of information/ interaction that are currently important in our country.
In each group there were discussions to decide which sites need to be added and/or removed, and how websites should be categorized . An important part of this exercise was to ensure that we are including sites that cater to various schools of thought so that the list is not skewed in its representation. This is important to do so that we can measure censorship across the board and not only of target sites that may be important to the world view of the people building and testing these lists.
Day 2 of the workshop resulted in the follow changes to the India test list :
|Category Code (Name)||New URLs added||Updated to
|Moved to Global list||Recommended for deletion||Domain Updated||Category Updated|
|Terrorism & Militancy||0||0||0||1||0||0|
The participants were able to significantly add to the categories of LGBT, Environment , Culture and Public Health which were very sparsely polluted earlier.
Accomplishing this took time and effort to ensure no sites were repeated, URLs were added correctly, and that existing URLs in the list were still relevant. Our workshop focused specifically on contributing new URLs and we did not specifically set out to prune the existing list (though some of us took the initiative to look at this aspect too). Here is the pull request for this update: https://github.com/citizenlab/test-lists/pull/864
At the end of workshop, participants and us as organizers were enthused by the amount of understanding built about the importance of community based monitoring of internet censorship and a huge role that people from all walks of like can (and in our opinion, should) play to help technologists and digital rights advocates around the world to stand guard over a free Internet.
We hope that this effort will give impetus to more people to engage in these sort of open source list building and testing activities that will enable the generation of in-depth and representative data on the true nature of the Internet that citizens in India get to experience.