Indian government’s new proposed rules are likely to tighten control over social and other digital platforms. The rules are aimed at making the platforms comply with the directions of the government and its agencies.
The Centre, on February 25, released the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 to regulate digital news publishers, streaming platforms, and social media platforms.
The IT rules will bring “intermediaries” – service providers or companies that host content created by users – under a three-tier regulatory framework. As mentioned in the 29-page document, the first tier would constitute a self-regulatory body within the company, the second tier would be a regulatory oversight body, and the third-tier would be a government committee, comprising domain experts and representatives from various ministries, formed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB).
The News Minute, a digital news publisher, said in an article that digital media organisations have raised concerns about the multi-ministry government body since it can “ultimately decide what content can and cannot be published by these organisations.”
Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, who was recently slapped with FIRs for “objectionable” tweets, said, “On a quick reading, the burdens being placed on publishers of digital news go beyond the basic restrictions on freedom of speech (and thus freedom of the press) envisaged by Article 19 and are therefore ultra vires the Constitution. Digital publishers are already subject to Article 19 restrictions and the numerous defamation cases filed against them, not to speak of various criminal cases, are proof of how existing laws are being used (or abused) in order to regulate digital media.”
Although the government describes the proposed framework as “progressive and liberal,” experts are wary of rules as they believe that it could lead to an increase in surveillance and censorship of content by the government.
One such aspect of the rules that Apar Gupta, Executive Director, Internet Freedom Foundation, cautions about is the statement requiring social media intermediaries primarily providing messaging services to identify the “first originator of the information.”
“Take traceability, where instant messaging platforms which deploy end-to-end encryption that helps keep our conversations private will now effectively be broken. This is because now the government may require that each message sent through WhatsApp or any other similar application be tied to the identity of the user,” Gupta writes.
Another aspect that has warranted criticism is the government’s order of intermediaries to block or take down “information prohibited by any law in relation to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India” within 36 hours.
“..if any such information is hosted, stored or published, the intermediary shall remove or disable access to that information, as early as possible, but in no case later than thirty-six hours from receipt of the court order or on being notified by the appropriate government or its agency,” said the document.