Mozilla and a few other global internet bodies have urged the government to scrap current changes being mulled in IT rules for social media and other platforms, and suggested that fresh public consultation be undertaken on ways to curb harmful speech online.
These organisations, which also include the Wikimedia Foundation and GitHub, have raised “deep concerns” in an open letter to IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad over the changes being proposed in IT rules, saying that the amendments in their current form will push platforms to surveil and censor content.
They have also contended that the proposals being talked about, are “unprecedented step” towards transforming the internet from an open platform for collaboration and innovation “to a tool of automated censorship and surveillance of its users”.
“As currently drafted, these rules would undermine Indian users’ access to myriad sites and services, putting them at a considerable disadvantage compared to users, developers, and organisations in other countries,” they said in the letter.
The comments come after the government recently disclosed plans to amend the IT rules wherein social media platforms and messaging apps (referred to as intermedieries) will be required to deploy tools to “identify” and curb unlawful content as well as follow stricter due diligence practices.
Some experts had earlier cautioned that the planned amendments, that also mandate traceability of “unlawful content”, could invade personal privacy and free speech. The government had sought public feedback on the proposed changes and the last date for comments is January 31, 2019.
“For the sake of the Internet’s future and Indian users, we urge you to abandon these proposed rules and begin afresh with public consultations on the appropriate way to counter harmful speech online,” the letter added.
The organisations also assured the ministry of engagement to work towards a “more balanced solution to the problem of illegal content on the internet”.
Some of apprehensions raised by these organisations include placing the onus of proactively purging unlawful content, squarely on the intermediary; and significantly expanding surveillance requirements on Internet services.
The letter also said that increasing surveillance could threaten user privacy, as the intermedieries will be required to monitor the postings of all users as well as handover information about “senders and receivers” of content to the government.
“We believe that strong protections of user privacy are necessary to foster a healthy discourse and access to knowledge on the internet. At a time where your own Ministry is seeking to enshrine the principle of ‘data minimization’ in law, this proposal threatens to take several steps back on user privacy,” it said.
The letter cautioned that for a new startup, the first priority cannot not building of expensive filtering infrastructure and hiring an army of lawyers.
“Imposing the obligations proposed in these new rules would place a tremendous and, in many cases, fatal burden on many online intermediaries, especially new organizations and companies,” it said, adding that at the same time large platforms may “over-censor” to avoid the threat of liability and litigation.