On 6 June 2022, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”), released the proposed amendments for Part 1 and Part II of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“2021 IT Rules”). CCG submitted its comments on the proposed amendments to the 2021 IT Rules, highlighting its key feedback and key concerns. The comments were authored by Vasudev Devadasan and Bilal Mohamed and reviewed and edited by Jhalak M Kakkar and Shashank Mohan.
The 2021 IT Rules were released in February last year, and Part I and II of the Guidelines set out the conditions intermediaries must satisfy to avail of legal immunity for hosting unlawful content (or ‘safe harbour’) under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“IT Act”). The 2021 IT Rules have been challenged in several High Courts across the country, and the Supreme Court is currently hearing a transfer petition on whether these actions should be clubbed and heard collectively by the apex court. In the meantime, the MeitY has released the proposed amendments to the 2021 IT Rules which seek to make incremental but significant changes to the Rules.
CCG’s comments to the MeitY can be summarised as follows:
Dilution of safe harbour in contravention of Section 79(1) of the IT Act
The core intention behind providing intermediaries with safe harbour under Section 79(1) of the IT Act is to ensure that intermediaries do not restrict the free flow of information online due to the risk of being held liable for the third-party content uploaded by users. The proposed amendments to Rules 3(1)(a) and 3(1)(b) of the 2021 IT Rules potentially impose an obligation on intermediaries to “cause” and “ensure” their users do not upload unlawful content. These amendments may require intermediaries to make complex determinations on the legality of speech and cause online intermediaries to remove content that may carry even the slightest risk of liability. This may result in the restriction of online speech and the corporate surveillance of Indian internet users by intermediaries. In the event that the proposed amendments are to be interpreted as not requiring intermediaries to actively prevent users from uploading unlawful content, in such a situation, we note that the proposed amendments may be functionally redundant, and we suggest they be dropped to avoid legal uncertainty.
Concerns with Grievance Appellate Committee
The proposed amendments envisage one or more Grievance Appellate Committees (“GAC”) that sit in appeal of intermediary determinations with respect to content. Users may appeal to a GAC against the decision of an intermediary to not remove content despite a user complaint, or alternatively, request a GAC to reinstate content that an intermediary has voluntarily removed or lift account restrictions that an intermediary has imposed. The creation of GAC(s) may exceed Government’s rulemaking powers under the IT Act. Further, the GAC(s) lack the necessary safeguards in its composition and operation to ensure the independence required by law of such an adjudicatory body. Such independence and impartiality may be essential as the Union Government is responsible for appointing individuals to the GAC(s) but the Union Government or its functionaries or instrumentalities may also be a party before the GAC(s). Further, we note that the originator, the legality of whose content is at dispute before a GAC, has not expressly been granted a right to hearing before the GAC. Finally, we note that the GAC(s) may lack the capacity to deal with the high volume of appeals against content and account restrictions. This may lead to situations where, in practice, only a small number of internet users are afforded redress by the GAC(s), leading to inequitable outcomes and discrimination amongst users.
Concerns with grievance redressal timeline
Under the proposed amendment to Rule 3(2), intermediaries must acknowledge the complaint by an internet user for the removal of content within 24 hours, and ‘act and redress’ this complaint within 72 hours. CCG’s comments note that 72-hour timeline to address complaints proposed by the amendment to Rule 3(2) may cause online intermediaries to over-comply with content removal requests, leading to the possible take-down of legally protected speech at the behest of frivolous user complaints. Empirical studies conducted on Indian intermediaries have demonstrated that smaller intermediaries lack the capacity and resources to make complex legal determinations of whether the content complained against violates the standards set out in Rule 3(1)(b)(i)-(x), while larger intermediaries are unable to address the high volume of complaints within short timelines – leading to the mechanical takedown of content. We suggest that any requirement that online intermediaries address user complaints within short timelines could differentiate between types of content that are ex-facie (on the face of it) illegal and causes severe harm (e.g., child-sex abuse material or gratuitous violence), and other types of content where determinations of legality may require legal or judicial expertise, like copyright or defamation.
Need for specificity in defining due diligence obligations
Rule 3(1)(m) of the proposed amendments requires intermediaries to ensure a “reasonable expectation of due diligence, privacy and transparency” to avail of safe harbour; while Rule 3(1)(n) requires intermediaries to “respect the rights accorded to the citizens under the Constitution of India.” These rules do not impose clearly ascertainable legal obligations, which may lead to increased compliance burdens, hamper enforcement, and results in inconsistent outcomes. In the absence of specific data protection legislation, the obligation to ensure a “reasonable expectation of due diligence, privacy and transparency” is unclear. The contents of fundamental rights obligations were drafted and developed in the context of citizen-State relations and may not be suitable or aptly transposed to the relations between intermediaries and users. Further, the content of ‘respecting Fundamental Rights’ under the Constitution is itself contested and open to reasonable disagreement between various State and constitutional functionaries. Requiring intermediaries to uphold such obligations will likely lead to inconsistent outcomes based on varied interpretations.