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All sectors demanded mechanism for level playing field: I&B Ministry on IT Rules 2021

The Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, chaired by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, said it hopes that the central government will give due regard to “creativity and freedom of expression” while regulating OTT platforms and digital news organisations under the IT Rules 2021.

Nevertheless, while appreciating this initiative of the Government which was long overdue, the Committee look forward to discussing the proposed rules with a view to developing a harmonious and proper oversight mechanism in relation to social media platforms and digital media and OTT platforms, following which the Committee hope that the Ministry would take all necessary steps to implement these rules with due regard to the importance of promoting creativity and protecting freedom of expression while maintaining a robust oversight mechanism. — IT Committee Report

In Tharoor-led Committee made the observation in a demand for grants report for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), which was laid in the Parliament on March 10. While the Rules bring a mechanism to establish a level playing field, when it comes to updating of mandate and framing rules for online platforms, “they should have been concurrent with the emergence and convergence of technology so that valid and genuine concerns are addressed at the nascent stage itself”, the Committee noted.

The Committee also expects the MIB to launch an awareness campaign to “empower citizens to make informed decisions about content”, get their grievances solved, and protect children from “obnoxious media”, and help fight fake news online. “The Committee look forward to a thorough discussion with the Ministry on these Rules,” it said.

The IT Rules 2021, notified by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology last month brings in tighter controls on the internet in India, requiring higher compliance from intermediaries, and in a first, brings in digital news and OTT platforms under its ambit. While the rules for intermediaries will be governed by MEITY, the MIB will have regulatory jurisdiction over streaming and digital news. Under the envisaged system, anybody can raise a grievance with online news or streaming content, with the ability to eventually escalate the complaint to the MIB, which has powers to block content under Section 69A. Civil society has criticised the rules; Mozilla pointed out the lack of meaningful checks and balances against government overreach. At least two cases have already been filed in the high courts of Kerala and Delhi against the Rules.

All sectors demanded level playing field mechanism: MIB

Importantly, in a briefing about the IT Rules 2021 by the MIB to the IT Committee on February 25, the Ministry said there was demand from all sectors for an arrangement wherein a level playing field in established with regard to OTT platforms and digital news. The Prakash Javadekar-led Ministry noted said that while the press, TV, and films all have their own forms of regulation, new platforms had no such arrangement or institutional mechanism.

There was demand from all sectors including these two platforms [OTT platforms and digital news] that there must be some arrangement by which a level playing field can be provided to all the media categories. Thus, under the Information Technology Act, 2000 certain rules are being formulated to provide this institutional mechanism for level playing field.

The Ministry suggested that industry demand for regulation, parental grievances over children’s content, the need for grievance redressal and finally cases in the Supreme Court led to the formation of the rules.

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The Ministry have stated that there was a demand for bringing such parity and mechanism by people at large as well as experts and media, filmmakers, industry experts, trade organizations/bodies, etc. These apart, there have been serious grievance from parents and guardians over the adult, violent and such other content which is harmful to children. There is also a need to empower the citizens for their grievance redressal. Due to absence of an institutional set up, citizens do not know where to send their grievances or file complaints or suggestions relating to content on OTT or on digital news. There have been several cases in the Supreme Court and various High Courts on this subject, and in a recent PIL hearing, the Supreme Court has observed that the Government should decide the matter urgently

MIB also told the Committee that it held consultations and studied regulatory models in other countries, including Singapore, Australia, the European Union, and the UK, discovering that most countries either have an institutional mechanism to regulate digital content or are in the process of setting up one.

In its briefing to the Committee, MIB once again insisted that its three closed-door meetings regarding only the streaming industry in 2019 in Mumbai, Chennai, and Delhi amounted to “wide ranging consultations”. It’s worth noting that no consultation was held for regulation of digital news publishers, something that LiveLaw has pointed out in its petition opposing the Rules: DIGIPUB News Foundation, which is the largest association of news and current affairs publishers was not consulted. And although consultations took place for 2018 draft version of the Intermediary Liability Rules, they had made no mention of regulating digital news or streaming services.

According to the Ministry, the regulatory mechanism is based on the “principles of minimum Government intervention”, but the platforms “should develop a robust grievance redressal mechanism on their own”.

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MediaNama has prepared a complete guide on the IT Rules 2021, including its inception, history, and impact on the internet; read it here: All you need to know about the new IT Rules, 2021

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