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Takeaways: MIB official says IT Rules complaints from other ministries to be considered directly at IDC level

Amid ongoing litigations over the IT Rules, the webinar touched on several key issues such as constitutionality, national security, and the role of parents in censoring OTT content.  

While the government says its inter-departmental committee would mostly only hear appeals of unresolved IT Rules complaints about news and streaming services, it could consider cases on its own as well. Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) Joint Secretary Vikram Sahay said in a webinar on Monday that while the tier-3 Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) at the government level for administering the Information Technology (Intermediary Liability and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, would mostly hear only cases that were not resolved in the below two tiers, they would deliberate on cases referred to them by other ministries directly, and give recommendations to the MIB on whether a warning, blocking, censure, or other such ramifications are in order, Sahay said.

The webinar comes at a time when news and streaming organisations try to understand how the Rules impact them. News organisations came to the table with questions for the MIB. The Rules are under litigation by multiple news organisations like The Wire, The Quint, The Leaflet, and the Digital News Publishers Association, who have in several High Court hearings called the legislation unconstitutional and an overreach by the government.

Streaming services and news organisations covered under the IT Rules are required to appoint a grievance officer, and submit to a three-tier complaints mechanism with the government at the top, and a self-regulatory body in the middle which can adjudicate appeals to complaints sent directly to publishers. They are also required to furnish basic information about their operations to the government. The Rules give the government the power to order content removed or blocked if they find it to be illegal or likely to provoke public harm. The revelation that the government would directly consider complaints submitted at its level (instead of referring them down to tier 1) raises the possibility of government overreach and censorship.

Key takeaways from the webinar

  • OTT content has “element of privacy”: Unlike theatrical content, where several people go into a theatre and watch a film together, content on streaming services is a “direct” link between publishers and a viewer, and so there is an element of privacy, Sahay said. As such, he added, pre-censorship was not warranted for OTT content.
  • National security: In the “rarest of rare” cases, Sahay said, when the government is not in a position to bring the case for hearing before the IDC, an emergency order, subject to review, would be issued.
  • On timelines and constitutionality: On representations that the timelines for compliance with the Rules were too short, Sahay said the government would continue consultations on the matter to find a way forward. He responded similarly to a suggestion from a journalism professor who said that the IDC should have the final say to allay fears of government overreach, as opposed to the MIB: he said that the government would see what it would do with the suggestions.
  • Parents’ responsibility: Sahay said that as far as OTT content was concerned, “Parents have as much responsibility as the OTT player to keep watch over what their children are watching.” The streaming operators are required under the Rules to come up with an age-gating mechanism and age-based classifications for all their content.
  • On ratings for televised content: One stakeholder asked a question on classifying content that was already televised. Sahay said that content that has already been shown in theatres shouldn’t pose much of a problem on certification, as they are already age-rated by the Central Board of Film Certification. “It’s only when there is foreign content that has never been shown in India before that self-certification will be required,” he said.
  • No app required: A TV news broadcaster asked a question on complying with the IT Rules as his channel had only a Facebook presence. Sahay said that such entities would not have to create an app, and can instead furnish their grievance redressal details on whatever social media platforms they are on.
  • Acknowledgement of information furnished to be given in ‘coming week’: Organisations who furnished information of their details to the MIB under the Rules will receive an acknowledgement from the government in the coming week, Sahay said. Forms that don’t have an SRB mentioned will be accepted, Sahay said, adding that such entities can send another representation after joining such a body.

Ongoing litigation against IT Rules

The following cases are currently going on at various high courts to challenge provisions of the IT Rules. The government has moved to transfer these cases to the Supreme Court.

  1. Digital News Publishers Association & anr v. Union of India & anr: Madras High Court, Petition.
  2. TM Krishna v. Union of India & anr: Hearing scheduled for July 14. Petition.
  3. The News Broadcasters Association v. Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology: Kerala High Court, stay on coercive action granted.
  4. Foundation for Independent Journalism v. Union of India: Delhi High Court, Petitioninterim stay refused twice.
  5. Live Law Media Private Limited & ors v. Union of India & anr: Kerala High Court, Petition, stay on coercive action granted.
  6. Sanjay Kumar Singh v. Union of India & ors: Delhi High Court, Petition, tagged with FIJ v. UoI.
  7. Quint Digital Media Limited & anr v. Union of India & anr: Delhi High Court, Petition, tagged with FIJ v. UoI.
  8. Press Trust of India v. Union of India & anr: Delhi High Court, Petition, tagged with FIJ v. UoI.
  9. AGIJ Promotion Of Nineteenonea Media Pvt Ltd & anr v. Union of India & anr: Bombay High Court, Petition, proceedings reportedly deferred in view of transfer petition.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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