India's new information technology rules demand greater accountability from social media companies and from anyone sharing information on the internet.
Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar believes India's new information technology regulations will create a safer social media (and digital) universe in the country.
India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has released the official amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules.
The rules specifically pertain to the digital intermediary platforms and the new amendments have introduced a set of changes that would have an effect on the working of these platforms. To simplify the idea, intermediary platforms primarily refers to all the platforms that are hosted on the internet, these may range from the social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram; messaging platforms such as Whatsapp to even the e-commerce or fintech platforms. This is why the new amendments need to be understood not only by the intermediaries but also the users of these platforms in greater detail.
Now, considering the backdrop of these new laws, the government had introduced a change in the IT rules back in February 2021 as well which mandated the exercise of greater diligence by the intermediary platforms in terms of the content showcased and the ethical codes that are followed. The present amendments are a build up of the previous notifications and it provides a greater clarity over the regulations of these intermediaries. When it comes to understanding the major aspects of this amendment, there are primarily three sets of changes that are introduced.
The first pertains to the type of content that finds space on these platforms. This is significantly important in the contemporary scenario when social media and messaging platforms are primary tools to disseminate information as well as express personal opinions. In this regard, the new amendment clearly lays down the categories of content that should not be allowed by the host platform.
This would also mean that the host platform is responsible for regulating the content that its users put out on a daily basis. The idea is for the intermediaries to filter out the content at the very beginning. However, in case of the failure to filter out the content, as per the new rules it becomes the responsibility of the intermediaries to respond to user reports of blocking such content.
The intermediaries are thereby directed to not host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share any of the information that pertains to copyright infringement issues, is of obscene or pornographic nature, harmful to children, deceives or misleads through misinformation or 'patently false' information, impersonates another person, threatens the sovereignty or security of the country, contains cybersecurity threats or violates any law within the constitution of India. It also needs to be noted that the present amendment has dropped the references to 'defamation' that were present in the rules before.
The adherence to the constitutional laws is further specified by naming Article 14, 19 and 21 among the major laws that need to be followed by the intermediaries. While Article 14 is the right to equality before the law provision, Article 19 deals with freedom of speech and expression and Article 21 is about the protection of life and personal liberty.
The second most important aspect of the new amendments is that the intermediaries have to publish their sets of rules and regulations of all the Indian languages specified in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian constitution. According to the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, speaking at a Twitter Spaces on the subject, the rules and regulations have to be published in the languages that all the Indian citizens can “understand and comprehend”. This could be an important step towards making these platforms more accessible to the citizens all across the nation.
The third and possibly the most important aspect of the new amendments is the set up of the Grievance Appellate Committee. The Grievance Appellate Committee or the GAC would act as the second order redressal mechanism in case of the failure to resolve the grievance by the concerned intermediary platform.
According to Rajeev Chandrasekhar, “the objective of the GAC is to give confidence to the people that if the first level of grievance redressal fails, the second level will succeed and give them justice”. The composition and the establishment of the GAC would involve three members, one of which is ex-officio and the other two would be independent members. The Grievance Appellate Committee is likely to be set up within the next three months, as per the official notification.
In case of failure to comply
Now, one could assess that this new amendment is a more stringent take on the regulations of the intermediaries and a structural framework has been put in place to ensure compliance of these platforms to the Constitutional laws. If, in any case, the intermediaries fail to comply, they would be given a 72-hour window to examine the content, especially regarding misinformation and patently false content. If the platform fails to take down the content even after this period, a certain Rule 7 of the new rules would kick in that would lead to the platform being stripped of its privilege and safe harbour under the section 79 of the IT Act.
Under this section the platforms had enjoyed immunity owing to the fact that they are not responsible for the content published by the users on their platforms. Now this aspect is directly addressed through the new amendment and it seeks to bestow greater accountability to the platforms for the nature of content they host.
As per Minister Chandrasekhar, the new rules ushering in “greater accountability is a win-win for all”. The idea is to make the digital space a trusted space for everyone and hence there is no need to view the amendments as a direct challenge to the intermediaries. “Don't make this adversarial, let's make this a partnership,” said Chandrasekhar as he called upon the intermediaries to comply with the new codes.
As far as the future trajectory of the digital laws are concerned, Chandrasekhar stated that these amendments are a “stepping stone” to two new legislations - Digital Personal Data Protection Bill and the Digital India Act which would supersede the Information Technology Act 2000. This is because there is a need to keep modifying the digital laws and regulations to keep meeting the needs of the present situations.