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Karnataka IT Minister Shares Details of State Unit Fact-Checking Online Content: Reports

Reports noted that the fact check unit would initiate action against misinformation, disinformation, and ‘malinformation’ under the IT Act (2000), the Indian Penal Code (1860), or the Disaster Management Act (2005).

Karnataka’s fact-check unit will be functional “very soon”, said the state’s IT Minister Priyank Kharge at a press conference yesterday, The New Indian Express reported. The unit will tackle misinformation, disinformation, and ‘malinformation’, Kharge added.

Misinformation means false or inaccurate information where no harm was intended, Kharge said, reported The News Minute. Disinformation is deliberately false or inaccurate information circulated to cause harm. Malinformation refers to “genuine” information propagated to cause harm.

Only “public interest” news items and social media posts will be flagged, said Kharge while discussing the unit’s framework yesterday. Notably, the state government is yet to define what public interest constitutes.

Why it matters: “We will diligently follow the tenets of natural justice. Let it be clear that the establishment of this unit is in no way an attempt to impinge upon the freedom of the press,” said Kharge last month when responding to concerns that the fact-checking unit would not infringe on free speech rights online.

That being said, the Karnataka government’s chosen tools to tackle and pre-empt misinformation online (such as predictive artificial intelligence technologies) raise questions about state-led censorship (and pre-censorship) online. These concerns are only amplified given that state government officials will seemingly be staffing the unit (more on that below), even if counter-balanced with civil society.

Similar questions were raised earlier this year during constitutional challenges against the Indian government’s plans to set up an Executive-appointed unit to fact-check government-related information online. Lawyers appearing before the Bombay High Court panned the proposal, arguing that the Indian government was making itself the judge, jury, and executioner of the ‘truth’ online. Some added that the determination of the ‘truth’ is a judicial function—so, the proposed unit violates the separation of powers and is constitutionally impermissible.

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Early signs of how the fact-check unit will operate: Kharge claimed that the fact-checking process would be completely transparent and follow apolitical and unbiased guiding principles, the Express reported. Content in Kannada, regional languages, and English will be fact-checked against “available” primary sources, while all sources referred to will be disclosed, the Minister added.

“Available and unambiguous information will be provided” in cases where the facts are unclear, Kharge said. The fact-checking methodology will be disclosed, while “transparent corrections” will be issued should new facts emerge.

While the agencies will “proactively” look for misinformation, members of the public can also submit content for fact-checking.

How will ‘misinformation’ be tackled?: Action will be taken against misinformation, disinformation, and ‘malinformation’ under the Information and Technology Act (2000), the Indian Penal Code (1860), or the Disaster Management Act (2005), the Express reported. For content blocking, the state government will coordinate with the Indian government (note: the latter can block content under Section 69A of the IT Act).

The unit will reach out to flagged social media platforms and “suggest” that they take down the content, The News Minute reported. Posts violating existing laws will be forwarded to the state’s Home Department so that cases can be filed, Kharge said. Both social media users and news organisations can be charged under provisions of the Indian Penal Code (1860), such as conducting public mischief, provocation with intent to cause riots, cheating, and defamation, among others.

Who will staff the unit?: The unit will be composed of an Oversight Committee, Nodal Officers, and a Review Single Point of Contact (RSPOC), the Express reported. It will also comprise fact-checking, analytics, and capacity-building teams.

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Adding that tackling fake news “requires” tools like artificial intelligence, Kharge said that the government would hire an agency with experience in the field, and access to technological infrastructure.

The News Minute added that the unit will be “overseen” by government and police officials, lawyers, civil society members, and academics. The complaint will be finally reviewed by the Superintendent of Police, Intelligence (the RSPOC), or any other officer appointed by the state’s Home Department. Other government officials involved in the unit include:

  • Heads of the department of Information Technology, Bio Technology, and Science and Technology;
  • Additional Director General of Police, Intelligence;
  • Department of Information and Public Relations;
  • Managing Director, Karnataka Innovation and Technology Society;
  • Dean, Electrical, Electronics, and Computer Science Division, Indian Institute of Science,
  • Additional Advocate General;
  • Centre Head CySecK (the state’s centre of excellence for cybersecurity).

The Express reports that these officials will be part of the Oversight Committee.

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