Questionable New Internet Laws to Govern Digital India

The Centre announced last month sweeping new rules that will impact all online media and social platforms. Government officials defend the regulation, intended to stop fake news, misuse and abuse of the power that digital media has on the country’s stability. NGOs and publishers call it an unacceptable challenge on free speech.

Online Media Regulation Challenged from the Start

The new IT rules – called Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code – are already legally enforceable after New Delhi’s announcement. Union Ministers have personally explained in detail and defended their intent, citing the responsibility of intermediaries, tracking of illegal activity and other undesirable social phenomena which can be triggered by popular social media.

While media experts seem to appreciate the underlying logic, a number of digital publishers have already expressed their concern over the methods and scope of these online media regulations. Some have even gone a step further, like the Independent Journalism Foundation (publishers of “The Wire”) which has brought a legal challenge to the Delhi High Court over the constitutional validity of these rules. Far from being concerned with Big Tech and its ability to operate in India, local media is worried about their effects on freedom of speech and personal privacy.

While desi users will still be able to access social media platforms, play European roulette, or gamble with real money on websites like chat and share videos online, the Government has essentially reserved its right to a last word on contents that can be safely published and shared. This regulatory framework concerns digital giants like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, as well as OTT streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon. The court hearing is scheduled for April 16, with legal and corporate teams waiting anxiously on the outcome of the proceedings.

What Do India’s New Internet Rules Imply

Several years in the making, these regulations have been released in the wake of the Centre’s conflict with Twitter, reluctant to remove posts and block accounts as per authorities’ request. Intended to deal with messages and media that “spread fake news and fuel violence”, the IT Minister quoted explicitly the likes of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn as needing to follow the Indian Constitution.

The digital media ethics code establishes a three-tier regulatory structure, including a government oversight mechanism. Over-the-top (OTT) platforms like Netflix and YouTube will be required to self-classify content into five categories (based on age suitability). And social media will be required to set up a grievances redressal mechanism – including a 36-hour response and content elimination as well as compliance officers and nodal contacts based in India. A self-regulatory ethics body will also be established (likely headed by a retired Supreme of High Court judge), with further surveillance mechanisms to be revealed by the Central Government Commission.

Crucially, social media intermediaries will have to identify the “first originator” of messages or media posts which essentially forces them to break end-to-end encryption. The latter aspect consists much of the trust that users have in these services and will ultimately make the majority of digital businesses unable to operate. Why technically possible, it is improbable that Big Tech will alter its main apps and platforms to accommodate such drastic changes.

Most of the vocal opponents to this policy, so far, have been among its own citizens. NGOs, publishers and consumer groups argue that India’s IT Act is not intended to govern content on online news media and that these changes go beyond acceptable practices in a democracy. The Modi administration, on the other hand, is powering forward with its policy and arming its bureaucracy with new powers. The ball seems to be in the court of America’s Big Tech.

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