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MeitY’s Digital India Act due in Winter Session, says report: OTT, metaverse in ambit

Government pushes Digital India Act as a timely replacement of the IT Act while also seeking greater control over content moderation

What’s the news: Days after the withdrawal of the data protection Bill, the government announced plans to introduce the Digital India Act (DIA) that will replace the IT Act 2000 to “cover crime on Twitter, Facebook, and Metaverse and monitor content on OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon for spreading misinformation or inciting violence,” said the Economic Times (ET).

Sources from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) claimed this upcoming digital regulatory framework will provide specific guidelines around child and women’s safety. More importantly, it will  replace the IT Act, the parent Act of the contentious IT Rules, by the winter session of the Parliament.

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Why this matters: Earlier in February, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar spoke about the need for a new digital law to replace the two decade old IT Act. Then, after the government withdrew the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB) 2021, Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw spoke about “a very comprehensive set of legislations which address the fundamental constructs within the digital landscape.” The DIA appears to be thought of as one such law in the proposed “set” of legislations, but may also lead to more government surveillance in the virtual world in the name of “regulation”.

DIA raises censorship concerns: According to ET’s sources, the new legal framework is supposed to help the police who currently depend on an “outdated” IT Act that barely covers “half the crime scenarios.” It will do so by including mechanisms like blocking Twitter accounts or Facebook pages/accounts for 24 hours posting the content under question. The report said that the government is working on the mode of enforcement of such a mechanism and reporting of such crimes.

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However, such a framework once again raises the concern of government influence on online content moderation and the freedom of expression online. In July, Mohammad Zubair, Alt News Founder, was arrested for a tweet that allegedly “hurt religious sentiments” for a tweet that was years old. There are still concerns within the social media companies about the implementation of the Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC) that can result in more governmental censoring.

Yet, the report only talked about how the DIA will cover “anything and everything that is digital,” including crimes and offences on social media platforms, OTT platforms, online apps and the metaverse, including blockchain-based crimes.

Another hurdle for OTT content: Government sources also told the newspaper that the DIA will  cover online content on OTT platforms. It will be over and above regulators like the censor board, said the report. This means the government could ask OTT platforms to pull down content if it violates ‘accepted and noticed guidelines.’

Yet, the IT Rules 2021 have already introduced such monitoring on OTT platforms even censoring  or cancelling multiple shows on demand, as pointed out by the Internet Freedom Foundation in its comments to the government in July 2022.

Meanwhile, ET said regulators are also looking to articulate metaverse and blockchain arguing that the current regulations are inadequate. It gave the example of a situation wherein a metaverse avatar bullies or sexually abuses another avatar where it is difficult to register the crime.

Overall, the ET source called the DIA a “comprehensive” law to address the convergence in technologies, services and devices. As per the report, regulators are studying regulations in Singapore and Australia along with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to formulate the Indian guidelines. Moreover, the government has formed a special committee that will look at the regulation from a technology and legal point of view.

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