In draft amendments to rules governing content, the government proposes to make it mandatory for online platforms to “proactively” ferret content seen as “unlawful”, and break end-to-end encryption (The Indian Express, December 24). A look at what these rules are, and the amendments proposed:
What are the Draft Information Technology Rules in the news?
The Information Technology [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018 are a set of changes in the rules used to operationalise the IT Act in March 2011. These rules are on how intermediaries, or various online platforms big and small, are to perform under Section 79. The existing rules provide immunity to these platforms for the content they transmit which is then published by end users, but they have to comply with legal requests for takedown of unlawful content and provide information on users.
How are these rules drafted?
The rules in March 2011 were drafted after public consultation. But this time, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) held a closed door, confidential meeting on these rules last week, with members of the Internet Service Providers Association of India, Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, ShareChat and agreed to give them until January 7 to respond. However, after the details of the proposed amendments emerged followed the publication of the report in The Indian Express on December 24, MeitY has since uploaded it on its website and asked for public responses by mid-January.
What are the major amendments?
Draft Rule 3(9): This change would require online platforms to become proactive arbiters of “unlawful” content. This is via “technology-based automated tools or appropriate mechanisms”. This runs contrary to what the Shreya Singhal judgment in 2015 said while outlawing Section 66 of the Act. It had noted, “it would be very difficult for intermediaries like Google, Facebook etc. to act when millions of requests are made and the intermediary is then to judge as to which of such requests are legitimate and which are not”. The proposed change shifts the onus and duty of the state to a private party.
Draft Rule 3(5): The proposal introduces the requirement of “traceability” which would break end-to-end encryption. The state argues that it wants online platforms to help it trace the source of messages, especially those that provoke violence. But this could endanger the promise of end-to-end encryption offered by some of the larger platforms. The smaller platforms, most of which do not offer end-to-end encryption, could end up being forced to provide metadata.
Draft Rule 3(8): The proposal increases the period for which data has to be retained, from 90 to 180 days. It also provides for further retention on the discretion of “government agencies”.
Does the timing of the move make it particularly controversial?
India has seen the maximum number of Internet shutdowns in the world since 2016. Now, there has been a bid to streamline online interactions. In July, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, told Parliament that the government was planning to bring in new rules to help it battle fake news and social media interactions. Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs, put out a circular, authorising 10 central agencies to access any manner of “computer resource”. This resulted in Opposition parties making the charge that the government was now “snooping” in an election year. These draft rule amendments has also led to allegations that the government is keen on surveillance and censorship. The Centre denies the charge and says it only wants to ensure “unlawful” content does not feed back into social unrest.