The Indian government has dealt another blow to digital media intermediaries/ platforms after it added an amendment proposing that an intermediary may not carry content which is categorised as fake or false by the fact check unit (or any other government-authorised agency) at the Press Information Bureau (PIB) under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB).
Why it matters: The amendment is a telltale sign of dwindling freedoms enjoyed by online platforms under the Indian government. It leaves content uploaded on online platforms at the mercy of the state which is doubly concerning as the PIB’s fact-checking unit has been accused of bias in the past. Moreover, the amendment is in line with the government’s actions in the past few years which has tried to concentrate powers in its hands.
Documenting dwindling freedoms of digital media: It is not the first time that the government has made an effort to regulate content on digital media platforms as is evident from the time when the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, were released to the public. Here are five instances which document the trend—
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Curbing ‘fake news’: The latest directive instructs platforms to not host information fact-checked to be “fake” or “false” by the PIB, as per the proposal released by the IT Ministry.
- The proposed amendment may allow for censorship of any information determined to be “fake” by a government agency. An analysis by Newslaundry found that PIB’s fact-checking unit has flagged articles critical of the Indian government.
- It must also be remembered that there are no safeguards built into the amendment to prevent its misuse, promote transparency while “fact-checking”, or limit its scope.
- The amendment may force platforms to monitor content proactively and take down “fake news” identified by the government and scramble to take it down on time.
Limits on FDI: The government mandated news aggregators in 2019 to make sure that their foreign direct investment (FDI) does not exceed 26 percent. The directive was issued by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade without clarifying the definition of digital media. It was considered to be a restrictive policy that inhibited Indian media from competing internationally. It applies to the following:
- digital media entity streaming/uploading news and current affairs on websites, apps, or other platforms;
- news agency which gathers, writes and distributes/transmits news, directly or indirectly, to digital media entities and/or news aggregators; and
- news aggregator, being an entity which, using software or web application, aggregates news content from various sources, such as news websites, blogs, podcasts, video blogs, user submitted links, etc in one location.”
Overreach using Section 69A: The MIB has powers under the IT Rules, 2021, to block or modify online “news and current affairs” content on digital media firms and digital news platforms through an Inter-Departmental Committee and Oversight Mechanism.
- The rules extended the government’s powers under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, to block internet content and reprimand publishers in the interests of “sovereignty, integrity, defence of India and security of the State or preventing a cognisable offence.”
- The government has used these powers on numerous occasions in 2022 to block over 100 YouTube channels besides accounts on other social media platforms.
Grievance Redressal: The new rules put in place a three-tier grievance redressal system including a provision for a self-regulatory mechanism. The government will publish a charter for self-regulatory organisations. It shall create an inter-departmental committee to hear grievances that have not been resolved in Level I and II.
- This committee can require content providers to reclassify their content’s age rating, edit the synopsis, or apologize.
Complaints can also be referred to Level III for blocking or censoring under Section 69A of the IT Act.
- The mechanism is applicable on digital news publishers and OTT (over-the-top) platforms. The latter also have to comply with Code of Ethics that have been laid down in the Rules.
Furnishing details: The rules also called for publishers of news and current affairs content to inform the MIB of its details “by furnishing information along with such documents as may be specified, for the purpose of enabling communication and coordination”.
- Moreover, publishers have to issue monthly compliance reports mentioning details of the grievances received and the action taken. The ministry can ask publishers for additional information if necessary for the implementation of the rules.
Editorial take: Many feel that there’s a steady decline in freedoms of online (and offline) media in India, and constant attempts to whittle down its ability to express views or present information contrary to the government’s desires. “Misinformation” can prove to be an easy label to slap on anything that authorities find detrimental to their own interests. In a democracy, it should not be up to the government to decide what news is permissible since this reinforces the power imbalance between the State and citizens. Free speech should be as broad as possible, and the right to consume “misinformation” should be protected under this concept. Of course, things like official secrets or CSAM are outside its ambit. But ultimately, viewers/readers/users should be free to judge the quality of information source and its impact on themselves and others, without interference from the State – Arjun, Sub-editor
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