Recent reports in the media - there were dozens in the last 24 hours - have suggested that visiting a blocked website could leave you facing a fine of Rs. 3 lakh, or even land you in jail. Before you start worrying that you're going to jail for that time you used a proxy site or a VPN to open a torrent site, here's what you need to know.
"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," says 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."
So what prompted the reports? Certain websites are being blocked under the John Doe orders from a court to prevent copyright infringement. That is a law just about every Indian film studio leans on around the time of major releases is well known so we won't rehash the details, but an order from the Bombay High Court, reported four days ago by IP law publication SpicyIP, deals with an application on behalf of the film Dishoom.
The court ruled in the case that instead of the standard message that simply says the website is being blocked, ISPs should deliver a special message with information about the provisions of the copyright act, and the order in question, with the suit number.
This would have the effect of allowing people to look up why a page was being blocked - if pages are being indiscriminately blocked because a movie studio wants to do so, shouldn't the people be aware of the reason for the block?
However, Tata responded to the court that this individual messaging would not be technologically feasible. The court notes that it did not see why the order was technologically unfeasible, and that Tata was the only ISP to say so. As a result of this pushback, in point 4 of the order, the court agreed to a compromise with Tata, with the message that was seen and led to the media reports. Point 5 of the order gives us the text of the warning Tata is displaying - which the court ordered only for Tata. This also explains why none of the other ISPs are displaying this message.
This URL has been blocked under the instructions of the Competent Government Authority or in compliance with the orders of a Court of competent jurisdiction. Viewing, downloading, exhibiting or duplicating an illicit copy of the contents under this URL is punishable as an offence under the laws of India, including but not limited to under Sections 63, 63-A, 65 and 65-A of the Copyright Act, 1957 which prescribe imprisonment for 3 years and also fine of upto Rs. 3,00,000/-. Any person aggrieved by any such blocking of this URL may contact at email@example.com who will, within 48 hours, provide you the details of relevant proceedings under which you can approach the relevant High Court or Authority for redressal of your grievance.
With the context in mind, if we look at the message again, you can see that the warning is about illegal viewing of the copyrighted materials - simply viewing the URL where the pirated content is hosted will not send you to jail. With that said, could you go to jail for downloading a movie? Yes, possibly. It's worth noting that there's no new law or ruling that's at play here - it's a standard warning about piracy, under rules that have been around for a long time now.
"Torrent sites are often used to share free and open source software and literary and artistic work licensed under Creative Commons licenses," Sugathan adds.
You won't go to jail simply for visiting Palika Bazaar, and you won't go to jail just for finding a way to view extratorrent. Actually downloading/ streaming something is a different matter - but that's been illegal in India for a long time now, though it's a law that's rarely, if ever, enforced.