Over a hundred journalists and other professionals working in online media wrote to Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani, expressing concern over the ministry’s proposal to extend rules and regulations meant for the traditional broadcast media to the web as well. The media professionals wrote that applying legacy media structures, such as licensing and content regulation, to the internet, could have a drastic impact on a medium that is widely credited with making the media and information landscape more open and democratic across the world.

Last month, the I&B ministry ordered the formation of a 10-member committee to frame rules to regulate news portals and media websites. The committee was to include secretaries of the ministries of information and broadcasting, electronics and information technology, home affairs, legal affairs and the department of industrial policy and promotion as members. It would also have had representatives of the Press Council of India, News Broadcasters Association and Indian Broadcasters Federation. But it had no representatives from the digital media space.

According to a press release, the journalists who signed the letter had organised themselves using social media, particularly WhatsApp, spontaneously after news broke that the government had set up a committee to come up with a regulatory structure for online media. A website, https://onlinefreedomfoundation.org, has also been set up to allow ordinary citizens to oppose the move to regulate online content.

Disclosure: MediaNama is a signatory to the letter, and Nikhil Pahwa, the founder and editor of MediaNama was involved with the drafting of the letter. Nikhil had previously written about the possible repercussions of regulation of online content, here.

The full text of the letter is published below:

To,
Smt Smriti Zubin Irani,
Minister of Information & Broadcasting,
Government of India.

CC: Prime Minister of India
CC: Minister of Information & Technology
CC: Minister of Law & Justice
CC: Members of Consultative Committee, Information & Broadcasting,
Parliament of India

REG: Attempts to bring online content under media regulations

Dear Minister Smriti Irani,

We are a group of Indian citizens who depend on the Internet to gather and share information on a daily basis.

We have come to know that this ministry has issued an order dated Apr 5, 2018 seeking to establish content regulations for the Internet modeled on those applicable for traditional media like print and TV. This letter is to place on record our feedback on the said order.

In the order, you make the following statements:

1. There are no norms and guidelines for content shared on the Internet

2. Therefore, the ministry has decided to constitute a committee to frame a regulatory framework for such content

3. Online ‘dissemination of information’ needs to be brought under regulation on the lines applicable to print and electronic media

4. The guidelines shall be sourced primarily from two sources: The Programming & Advertising Code for TV channels put in place by the government, and the norms circulated by traditional media organizations such as Press Council of India, News Broadcasters’ Association and Indian Broadcasting Foundation for their members.

As people engaged constantly in the dissemination of news and views on the Internet, we would like to record our response on each of the four points.

1. On point 1, we deny the assertion there are no norms and guidelines for content on the Internet. Even a cursory reading of the IT Act would reveal that all content is covered under its scope. The Act in fact goes beyond laying down guidelines, and incorporates stiff punishments for those who violate the content norms laid down in it. Similarly, several other laws, such as the Indian Penal Code, also contain clear dos and don’ts for sharing of content, including over the Internet. Therefore, to say that there are no norms and guidelines for content online is contrary to facts.

2. Given that the first premise — that there exists no norms for online content – is incorrect, this statement becomes logically unmaintainable as it relies on the first statement for its validity.

3. Next, the ministry says that online content “needs to be brought under regulation on the lines applicable to print and electronic media.” Our position is that online content is different from print and television content, because most of it is produced by individual citizens in exercise of their constitutional right to freedom of expression, and embodies two way communication and interactivity, and not just publishing. Much of online content is borne out of an individual’s need to express opinions and exercise artistic freedom, protected by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. Online, it is also difficult to distinguish between publishing and communications. It is also worth noting that, according to the Indian Constitution, an individual has the same right to free speech and expression whether by word of mouth, writing, printing, pictures or any other mode. Therefore, restrictions that do not apply to offline speech cannot be used to control online speech either. On the other hand, provisions that apply to offline behavior — such as the IPC — are equally applicable, and regularly applied, to online content.

4. The objections to this proposal have already been recorded under point 3.

We reiterate that applying additional regulations on Internet content will:

1. Impinge upon the individual citizen’s freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution, and/or

2. open up the possibility of widespread abuse and attempts to suppress of political dissent by the government and/or the regulating agency.

We request you to consider these responses, and call upon the government to withdraw its plans to create additional rules for regulation of online content.