The Indian government on Friday invoked its emergency powers to direct YouTube and Twitter to remove links of the BBC documentary that revisits Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

It has exercised those powers under the Information Technology Rules, 2021, which have been widely opposed by media organisations, digital rights activists and social media platforms on the grounds that they enable censorship. The Rules have been challenged in the Supreme Court and various High Courts, where proceedings are currently underway.

This is not the first time that the Centre has invoked these powers. In the past, it has asked YouTube to take down accounts for spreading disinformation. But the latest move has drawn more attention since the target this time is a major international broadcaster.

The BBC documentary

The first episode of the documentary titled India: The Modi Question, which released on January 17, alleged that a team sent by the British government had found that Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, was “directly responsible for a climate of impunity” that led to the violence against Muslims. While the documentary has not been officially released in India, its pirated versions have been circulating on social media platforms.

The Ministry of External Affairs has alleged that the documentary pushed a discredited narrative.

On Saturday, Kanchan Gupta, senior advisor at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, announced on Twitter that multiple ministries, including home and external affairs, had examined the documentary and found it to be “casting aspersions on the authority and credibility” of the Supreme Court, creating divisions among Indian communities and making unsubstantiated allegations.

“[The BBC’s] vile propaganda was found to be undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India, and having the potential to adversely impact India’s friendly relations with foreign countries as also public order within the country,” Gupta said.

Citing these reasons, the Information and Broadcasting ministry invoked emergency powers under the Information Technology Rules, 2021, to issue directives for the removal of the documentary’s links from YouTube and Twitter.

Gupta said YouTube and Twitter were complying with the Indian government’s orders. Fifty tweets taken down for containing the documentary’s YouTube link included those by Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament Derek O’Brien, Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan and American actor and political activist John Cusack. The Lumen database, which Twitter notifies upon receiving takedown requests, has a copy of the tweets that the Indian government issued orders against.

Provisions of the IT Rules

The Information Technology Rules that were notified in February 2021 are formally called the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

Rule 16 lays down the Union government’s power of “blocking of information in case of emergency”. It allows the government to order the immediate removal of content in the interest of India’s sovereignty, security, friendly relations with countries and to maintain law and order.

The rule says that in case of an emergency where no delay is acceptable, the ministry’s secretary – following a written recommendation from an authorised officer who has examined the content – may, as an “interim measure” issue directives to identified or identifiable persons, publishers or intermediaries to block public access to certain content upon satisfaction that it is “necessary or expedient and justifiable” to do so.

This can be done without giving the intermediaries or publishers the opportunity of a hearing. The action can be initiated if the identified content falls within the criteria referred to in sub-section (1) of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act on blocking public access to any information through a “computer resource”.

Similar to what is listed under Rule 16 of the Information Teachnology Rules, this sub-section of the IT Act states that the Union government can order the blocking of content in the interest of India’s sovereignty and integrity, defence, security, friendly relations with other nations or public order or for preventing incitement to commit cognisable offence.

Rule 16(3) of the Information Technology Rules also requires the authorised officer to place the ban request before a Review Committee within 48 hours to decide if the ban needs to continue. It was not clear if and how the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will proceed with respect to these rules on reviewing the ban request.

The Internet Freedom Foundation has called upon the “authorised officer” to comply with this provision and also asked the Review Committee to make its findings public.

Opposition, experts say censorship

Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien, whose tweet was taken down following the government’s directive, and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said the decision to block links to the documentary on YouTube and Twitter amounted to “censorship”.

When the Information Technology Rules, 2021, were first notified, experts had already noted that it would increase political control in the online space.

Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said in June that the Information Technology Rules will increase the government’s direct control over social media platforms. “Censorship and hate speech will balloon at the same time,” he wrote on Twitter.

Sana Alam and Tarun Pratap, in an analysis of the Information Technology rules for the Delhi-based not-for-profit organisation Digital Empowerment Foundation in 2021, had also written that censorship is the foremost problem with the norms. “The idea that [the] government can wish to block the content which they feel like is nothing but state surveillance.”