File-sharing website WeTransfer has been blocked for Indian internet users “in public interest as it was being misused”, a department of telecommunications (DoT) official said, amid mounting criticism that the government was censoring access to internet without adequate justification.
WeTransfer was blocked through an order on May 18, which cited “interest of national security or public interest” as justification for the ban without giving more details. It is now among 4,000-odd websites, which includes pornography sites, that are inaccessible for Indians.
“We get regular requests from the home ministry, ministry of electronics and information technology or even courts to block certain websites,” said an official in DoT, who asked not to be named. “WeTransfer was blocked as it was misused by some people to share content in the name of Delhi Police Commissioner and other government officials. The request came to us from the Delhi Police cybercrime unit. It’s a matter of national security,” this person added.
A senior official in the Delhi Police’s cybercrime unit, when asked about WeTransfer, said he was not aware of a specific abuse case, although, this person added, generic alerts had been sent to the home ministry.
Since the order was issued, several social media users have highlighted the ban, including film editor TS Suresh. The website has in the past been used by the government, with links to WeTransfer files on the Press Information Bureau (PIB) website.
HT could access WeTransfer on some internet service providers. “We will write to the ministry to approach internet service providers to comply with the order,” the official quoted above said when asked about the ban not being enforced.
Digital rights groups said the ban reflects a lack of transparency. “Today, we sent a representation to DoT urging them to recall this direction,” the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said in a statement on Tuesday. “We further also indicate the need for wider regulatory reforms that have led to questionable blocking orders in the past. Including the blocking of Telegram and Porn Websites in India. This is at its very threshold, a transparency problem.”
According to IFF trustee Apar Gupta, the lack of reasoning in the order denies WeTransfer a chance to defend its position.
“If that’s the basis, then it needs to be mentioned in the order,” Gupta said. “That way WeTransfer can defend itself and it breeds accountability for a large number of users who subscribe to the service for legitimate reasons.”
Moreover, added Gupta, clarifying the position would also enable law enforcement to track those responsible for misusing the service.
“Under the Information Technology Act, WeTransfer is not liable for malicious content as it acts as an intermediary,” said Gupta. “By mentioning the reason in the order, the government would also have given WeTransfer the chance to expeditiously take down the content”.
“Irrespective of the legitimacy of the demand, the process was deeply flawed. This sets a bad precedent,” Gupta added.
According to the DoT official quoted above, lack of transparency cannot be used to “downplay” the need to block WeTransfer. “It was done in public interest. People should understand that we received a genuine request, assessed it and decided it was best to block the website.”
(With inputs from Prawesh Lama)