[September 2-9] CCG’s Week in Review: Curated News in Information Law and Policy

This week, Delhi International Airport deployed facial recognition on a ‘trial basis’ for 3 months, landline communications were restored in Kashmir as the Government mulls over certification for online video streaming platforms like Netflix and PrimeVideo – presenting this week’s most important developments in law, tech and national security.

Aadhaar

  • [Sep 3] PAN will be issued automatically using Aadhaar for filing returns: CBDT, DD News report.
  • [Sep 3] BJD set to collect Aadhaar numbers of its members in Odisha, Opposition parties slam move, News 18 report; The New Indian Express report; Financial Express report.
  • [Sep 5] Aadhaar is secure, says ex-UIDAI chief, Times of India report.
  • [Sep 5] Passport-like Aadhaar centre opened in Chennai: Online appointment booking starts, Livemint report.
  • [Sep 8] Plans to link Janani Suraksha and Matra Vandan schemes with Aadhaar: CM Yogi Adityanath, Times of India report.

Digital India

  • [Sep 5] Digital media bodies welcome 26% FDI cap, Times of India report.
  • [Sep 6] Automation ‘not  threat’ to India’s IT industry, ET Tech report.
  • [Sep 6] Tech Mahindra to modernise AT&T network systems, Tech Circle report.

Data Protection and Governance

  • [Sep 2] Health data comes under the purview of Data Protection Bill: IAMAI, Inc42 report.
  • [Sep 2] Credit history should not be viewed as sensitive data, say online lenders, Livemint report.
  • [Sep 3] MeitY may come up with policy on regulation of non-personal data, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 3] MeitY to work on a white paper to gain clarity on public data regulations, Inc42 report.
  • [Sep 6] Treating data as commons is more beneficial, says UN report, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 9] Indian Government may allow companies to sell non-personal data of its users, Inc42 report, The Economic Times report.
  • [Sep 9] Tech firms may be compelled to share public data of its users, ET Tech report.

Data Privacy and Breaches

  • [Sep 2] Chinese face-swap app Zao faces backlash over user data protection, KrAsia report; Medianama report.
  • [Sep 2] Study finds Big Data eliminates confidentiality in court judgments, Swiss Info report.
  • [Sep 4] YouTube will pay $170 million to settle claims it violated child privacy laws, CNBC report; FTC Press Release.
  • [Sep 4] Facebook will now let people opt-out of its face recognition feature, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 4] Mental health websites in Europe found sharing user data for ads, Tech Crunch report.
  • [Sep 5] A huge database of Facebook users’ phone numbers found online, Tech Crunch report.
  • [Sep 5] Twitter has temporarily disabled tweet to SMS feature, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 6] Fake apps a trap to track your device and crucial data, ET Tech report.
  • [Sep 6] 419 million Facebook users phone numbers leaked online, ET Tech report; Medianama report
  • [Sep 9] Community social media platform, LocalCircles, highlights data misuse worries, The Economic Times report.

Free Speech

  • [Sep 7] Freedom of expression is not absolute: PCI Chairman, The Hindu report.
  • [Sep 7] Chennai: Another IAS officer resign over ‘freedom of expression’, Deccan Chronicle report.
  • [Sep 8] Justice Deepak Gupta: Law on sedition needs to be toned down if not abolished, The Wire report.

Online Content Regulation

  • [Sep 3] Government plans certification for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Other OTT Platforms, Inc42 report.
  • [Sep 4] Why Justice for Rights went to court, asking for online content to be regulated, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 4] Youtube claims new hate speech policy working, removals up 5x, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 6] MeitY may relax norms on content monitoring for social media firms, ET Tech report; Inc42 report; Entrackr report.

E-Commerce

  • [Sep 4] Offline retailers accuse Amazon and Flipkart of deep discounting, predatory pricing and undercutting, Medianama report; Entrackr report.
  • [Sep 6] Companies rely on digital certification startups to foolproof customer identity, ET Tech report.

Digital Payments and FinTech

  • [Sep 3] A sweeping reset is in the works to bring India in line with fintech’s rise, The Economic Times report.
  • [Sep 3] Insurance and lending companies in agro sector should use drones to reduce credit an insurance risks: DEA’s report on fintech, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 3] Panel recommends regulating fintech startups, RBI extends KYC deadline for e-wallet companies, TechCircle report.
  • [Sep 4] NABARD can use AI and ML to create credit scoring registry: Finance Ministry report on FinTech, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 5] RBI denies action against Paytm Payments bank over PIL allegation, Entrackr report.
  • [Sep 5] UPI entities may face market share cap, ET Tech report.
  • [Sep 6] NBFC license makes fintech startups opt for lending, ET Tech report.
  • [Sep 9] Ease access to credit history: Fintech firms, ET Markets report.

Cryptocurrencies

  • [Sep 1] Facebook hires lobbyists to boost crypto-friendly regulations in Washington, Yahoo Finance report.
  • [Sep 2] US Congress urged to regulate crypto under Bank Secrecy Act, Coin Telegraph report.
  • [Sep 2] Indian exchanges innovate as calls for positive crypto regulation escalate, Bitcoin.com report.
  • [Sep 4] Marshall Islands official explains national crypto with fixed supply, Coin Telegraph report.
  • [Sep 5] Apple thinks cryptocurrency has “long-term potential”, Quartz report.
  • [Sep 5] NSA reportedly developing quantum-resistant ‘crypto’, Coin Desk report.
  • [Sep 6] Crypto stablecoins may face bottleneck, ET Markets report.

Cybersecurity

  • [Sep 3] Google’s Android suffers sustained attacks by anti-Ugihur hackers, Forbes report.
  • [Sep 4] Firefox will not block third-party tracking and cryptomining by default for all users, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 4] Insurance companies are fueling ransomware attacks, Defense One report.
  • [Sep 5] Firms facing shortage of skilled workforce in cybersecurity: Infosys Research, The Economic Times report.
  • [Sep 5] Cybersecurity a boardroom imperative in almost 50% of global firms: Survey, Outlook report; ANI report.
  • [Sep 5] DoD unveils new cybersecurity certification model for contractors, Federal News Network report.
  • [Sep 5] Jigsaw Academy launches cybersecurity certification programme in India, DQ India report.
  • [Sep 6] Indians lead the world as Facebook Big Bug Hunters, ET Tech report.
  • [Sep 6] Australia is getting a new cybersecurity strategy, ZD Net report.
  • [Sep 9] China’s 5G, industrial internet roll-outs to fuel more demand for cybersecurity, South China Morning Post report.

Tech and National Security

  • [Sep 3] Apache copters to be inducted today, The Pioneer report.
  • [Sep 3] How AI will predict Chinese and Russian moves in the Pacific, Defense One report.
  • [Sep 3] US testing autonomous border-patrol drones, Defense One report.
  • [Sep 3] Meet the coalition pushing for ‘Cyber Peace’ rules. Defense One report.
  • [Sep 4] US wargames to try out concepts for fighting China, Russia, defense One report.
  • [Sep 4] Southern Command hosts seminar on security challenges, Times of India report; The Indian Express report
  • [Sep 4] Russia, already India’s biggest arms supplier, in line for more, Business Standard report.
  • [Sep 4] Pentagon, NSA prepare to train AI-powered cyber defenses, Defense One report.
  •  [Sep 5] Cabinet clears procurement of Akash missile system at Rs. 5500 crore, Times Now report.
  • [Sep 5] India to go ahead with $3.1 billion US del for maritime patrol aircraft, The Economic Times report.
  • [Sep 5] DGCA certifies ‘small’ category drone for complying with ‘No-Permission, No-Takeoff’ protocol, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 5] India has never been aggressor but will not hesitate in using its strength to defend itseld: Rajnath Singh, The Economic Times report.
  • [Sep 5] Panel reviewing procurement policy framework to come out with new versions of DPP, DPM by March 2020, The Economic Times report; Business Standard report; Deccan Herald report.
  • [Sep 5] Russia proposes joint development of submarines with India, The Hindu report.
  • [Sep 7] Proud of you: India tells ISRO after contact lost with CHandrayaan-2 lander, India Today report.

Tech and Elections

  • [Sep 4] ECI asks social media firms to follow voluntary code of ethics ahead of state polls: report, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 6] Congress party to reorganise its data analytics department, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 5] Why the 2020 campaigns are still soft targets for hackers, Defense One report.
  • [Sep 5] Facebook meets with FBI to discuss election security, Bloomberg report.
  • [Sep 5] Facebook is making its own AI deepfakes to head off a disinformation disaster, MIT Tech Review report.

Internal Security: J&K

  • [Sep 4] Long convoy, intel failure: Multiple lapses led to Pulwama terror attack, finds CRPF inquiry, India Today report; Kashmir Media Service report; The Wire report.
  • [Sep 4] Extension of President’s Rule in Kashmir was not delayed, MHA says in report to SC lawyer’s article, Scroll.in report.
  • [Sep 6] Landline communication restored in Kashmir Valley: Report, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 7] Kashmir’s Shia areas face curbs, all Muharram processions banned, The Quint report.
  • [Sep 7] No question of army atrocities in Kashmir as it’s only fighting terrorists: NSA Ajit Doval, India Today report.
  • [Sep 8] More than 200 militants trying to cross into Kashmir from Pakistan: Ajit Doval, Money Control report.
  • [Sep 8] ‘Such unilateral actions are futile’, says India after Pakistan blocks airspace for President Kovind, Scroll.in report; NDTV report.

Internal Security: NRC

  • [Sep 2] Contradictory voices in Assam Congress son NRC: Tarun Gogoi slams it as waste paper, party MP says historic document, India Today report.
  • [Sep 3] Why Amit Shah is silent on NRC, India Today report.
  • [Sep 7] AFSPA extended for 6 months in Assam, Deccan Herald report.
  • [Sep 7] At RSS mega meet, concerns over Hindus being left out of NRC: Sources, Financial Express report.

National Security Institutions and Legislation

  • [Sep 5] Azhar, Saeed, Dawood declared terrorists under UAPA law, Deccan Herald report; The Economic Times report.
  • [Sep 8] Home Minister says India’s national security apparatus more robust than ever, Livemint report.
  • [Sep 8] Financial safety not national security reason for women to join BSF: Study, India Today report.

Telecom/5G

  • [Sep 6] Security is an issue in 5G: NCSC Pant on Huawei, Times of India report.

More on Huawei

  • [Sep 1] Huawei believes banning it from 5G will make countries insecure, ZD Net report.
  • [Sep 2] Huawei upbeat on AI strategy for India, no word on 5G roll-out plans yet, Business Standard report.
  • [Sep 3] Huawei denies US allegations of technology theft, NDTV Gadgets 260 report; Business Insider report; The Economic Times report.
  • [Sep 3] Shocking Huawei ‘Extortion and Cyberattack’ allegations in new US legal fight, Forbes report; Livemint report, BBC News report; The Verge report
  • [Sep 3] Committed to providing the most advanced products: Huawei, ET Telecom report.
  • [Sep 4] Huawei says 5G rollout in India will be delayed by 3 years if it’s banned, Livemint report
  • [Sep 4] Trump not interested in talking Huawei with China, Tech Circle report.
  • [Sep 5] Nepal’s only billionaire enlists Huawei to transform country’s elections, Financial Times report.
  • [Sep 8] Trump gets shocking new Huawei warning – from Microsoft, Forbes report.

Emerging Tech

  • [Aug 30] Facebook is building an AI Assistant Inside Minecraft, Forbes report.
  • [Sep 3] AWS partners with IIT KGP for much needed push to India’s AI skilling, Inc42 report.
  • [Sep 3] Behind the Rise of China’s facial recognition giants, Wired report.
  • [Sep 4] Facebook won’t use facial recognition on you unless you tell it to, Quartz report.
  • [Sep 4] An AI app that turns you into a movie star has risked the privacy of millions, MIT Technology Review report.
  • [Sep 6] Police use f facial recognition is accepted by British Court, The New York Times report.
  • [Sep 6] Facebook, Microsoft announce challenge to detect deepfakes, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 6] Facial recognition tech to debut at Delhi airport’s T3 terminal; on ‘trial basis’ for next three months, Medianama report.

Internet Shutdowns

  • [Sep 3] After more than 10 weeks, internet services in towns of Rakhine and Chin restored, Medianama report.
  • [Sep 4] Bangladesh bans mobile phone services in Rohingya camps, Medianama report.

Opinions and Analyses

  • [Sep 2] Michael J Casey, Coin Desk, A crypto fix for a broken international monetary system.
  • [Sep 2] Yengkhom Jilangamba, News18 Opinion, Not a solution to immigration problem, NRC final list has only brought to surface fault lines within society.
  • [Sep 2] Samuel Bendett, Defense One, What Russian Chatbots Think About Us.
  • [Sep 2] Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, India’s no first use policy is a legacy that must be preserved.
  • [Sep 3] Abir Roy, Financial Express, Why a comprehensive law is needed for data protection. 
  • [Sep 3] Dhirendra Kumar, The Economic Times, Aadhaar is back for mutual fund investments.
  • [Sep 3] Ashley Feng, Defense One, Welcome to the new phase of US-China tech competition.
  • [Sep 3] Nesrine Malik, The Guardian, The myth of the free speech crisis.
  • [Sep 3] Tom Wheeler and David Simpson, Brookings Institution, Why 5G requires new approaches to cybersecurity.
  • [Sep 3] Karen Roby, Tech Republic, Why cybersecurity is a big problem for small businesses.
  • [Sep 4] Wendy McElroy, Bitcoin.com, Crypto needs less regulation, not more.
  • [Sep 4] Natascha Gerlack and Elisabeth Macher, Modaq.com, US CLOUD Act’s potential impact on the GDPR. 
  • [Sep 4] Peter Kafka, Vox, The US Government isn’t ready to regulate the internet. Today’s Google fine shows why.
  • [Sep 5] Murtaza Bhatia, Firstpost, Effective cybersecurity can help in accelerating business transformation. 
  • [Sep 5] MG Devasahayam, The Tribune, Looking into human rights violations by Army.
  • [Sep 5] James Hadley, Forbes, Cybersecurity Frameworks: Not just for bits and bytes, but flesh and blood too.
  • [Sep 5] MR Subramani, Swarajya Magazine, Question at heart of TN’s ‘WhatsApp traceability case’: Are you endangering national security if you don’t link your social media account with Aadhaar? 
  • [ Sep 5] Justin Sherman, Wired, Cold War Analogies are Warping Tech Policy.
  • [Sep 6] Nishtha Gautam, The Quint, Peer pressure, militant threats enforcing civil curfew in Kashmir?
  • [Sep 6] Harsh V Pant and Kartik Bommakanti, Foreign Policy, Modi reimagines the Indian military.
  • [Sep 6] Shuman Rana, Business Standard, Free speech in the crosshairs.
  • [Sep 6] David Gokhshtein, Forbes, Thoughts on American Crypto Regulation: Considering the Pros and Cons.
  • [Sep 6] Krishan Pratap Singh, NDTV Opinion, How to read Modi Government’s stand on Kashmir.
  • [Sep 7] MK Bhadrakumar, Mainstream Weekly, The Big Five on Kashmir.
  • [Sep 7] Greg Ness, Security Boulevard, The Digital Cyber Security Paradox.
  • [Sep 8] Lt. Gen. DS Hoods, Times of India, Here’s how to take forward the national security strategy.
  • [Sep 8] Smita Aggarwal, Livemint, India’s unique public digital platforms to further inclusion, empowerment. 

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Facebook and its (dis)contents

In 2016, Norwegian writer Tom Egeland, uploaded a post on Facebook, listing seven photographs that “changed the history of warfare”. The post featured the Pulitzer-winning image, ‘The Terror of War’, which depicts a naked nine-year-old running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Facebook deleted the post, and suspended Egeland’s account.

A Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, while reporting on the suspension, used the same image on its Facebook page. The newspaper soon received a message from Facebook demanding that the image be either removed, or pixelated. The editor-in-chief refused to comply in an open letter to Mark Zuckerburg, noting his concern at the immense power Facebook wielded over speech online. The issue escalated when several Norwegian politicians, including the Prime Minister, shared the image on Facebook, and were temporarily suspended from Facebook as well.

Facebook initially stated that it would be difficult to create a distinction between instances where a photograph of a nude child could be allowed. However, due to widespread censure, the platform eventually decided to reinstate the image owing to its “status as an iconic image of historical importance.”

This incident brought to light the tricky position Facebook finds itself in as it attempts to police its platform. Facebook addresses illegal and inappropriate content through a mix of automated processes, and human moderation. The company publishes guidelines about what content may not be appropriate for its platform, called its ‘Community Standards.’ Users can ‘flag’ content that they think does not meet the Community Standards, which is then reviewed by moderators. Moderators may delete, ignore, or escalate flagged content to a senior manager. In some cases, the user account may be suspended, or asked to submit identity verification.

As evident from the ‘Terrors of War’ incident, Facebook has often come under fire for supposed ‘wrong’ moderation of content, as well as opacity in how its community review process comes to be applied. It has been argued that content that is evidently in violation of Community Standards is often not taken down, while content that should be safe is censored. For instance, Facebook courted controversy again, when it was accused of blocking content and accounts documenting persecution of the Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar.

Closer home as well, multiple instances of Facebook’s questionable moderation practices have come to light. In October 2017, Raya Sarkar, a law student based out of the United States, had created what came to be called, the List. The List named over 70 prominent academics that had been accused of sexual harassment. The approach proved extremely controversial, sparking debates about due process, and the failure of institutional mechanisms to address harassment. Facebook blocked her account for seven days, which proved equally contentious. Sarkar’s account was restored only after Facebook staff in Palo Alto were contacted directly. Similar instances have been reported of seemingly arbitrary application of the Community Standards. In many cases accounts have been suspended, and content blocked without notice, explanation or recourse.

Content moderation inherently involves much scope for interpretation and disagreement. Factors such as context, as well as cultural differences, render it a highly subjective exercise. Algorithms don’t appear to have reached sufficient levels of sophistication, and there exist larger issues associated with automated censoring of speech. Human moderators are by all accounts burdened by the volume and the psychologically taxing nature of the work, and therefore prone to error. The way forward should therefore be first, to ensure that transparent mechanisms exist for recourse against the removal of legitimate speech.

In light of the ‘Terror of War’ incident, Facebook responded by updating its community standards. In a statement, it said that it would allow graphic material that would be “newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards.” Leaked moderator guidelines in 2017 opened the company up to granular public critique of its policies. There is evidently scope for Facebook to be more responsive and consultative in how it regulates speech online.

In June 2017, Facebook reached 2 billion monthly users, making it the largest social network, and a platform for digital interaction without precedent. It has announced plans to reach 5 billion. With the influence it now wields, it must also embrace its responsibility to be more transparent and accountable to its users.

NDTV INDIA BAN: A CASE OF REGULATORY OVERREACH AND INSIDIOUS CENSORSHIP?

In a highly contentious move, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (‘MIB’) issued an order banning the telecast of the Hindi news channel ‘NDTV India’ on 9th November, 2016. The MIB imposed this ‘token penalty’ on NDTV India following the recommendation of an Inter-Ministerial Committee (‘IMC’). The IMC had found the channel liable for revealing “strategically sensitive information” during the coverage of Pathankot terrorist attacks on 4th January, 2016. The ban has, however, been put on hold by the MIB after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a writ petition filed by NDTV India against the ban.

The order passed by the MIB raises some important legal issues regarding the freedom of speech and expression of the press. Since the news channels are constantly in the race for garnering Television Rating Points, they may sometimes overlook the letter of the law while covering sensitive incidents such as terrorist attacks. In such cases, regulation of the media becomes necessary. However, it is tricky to achieve an optimum balance between the various concerns at play here – the freedom of expression of the press and the people’s right to information, public interest and national security.

In this post, we discuss the background of the NDTV India case and the legal issues arising from it. We also analyze and highlight the effects of governmental regulation of the media and its impact on the freedom of speech and expression of the media.

NDTV Case – A Brief Background:

On January 29, 2016, the MIB had issued a show cause notice to NDTV India alleging that their coverage of the Pathankot military airbase attack had revealed vital information which could be used by terror operators to impede the counter-operations carried by the security forces. The notice also provided details regarding the alleged sensitive information revealed by NDTV India.

In its defence, the channel claimed that the coverage had been “balanced and responsible” and that it was committed to the highest levels of journalism. The channel also stated that the sensitive information allegedly revealed by the channel regarding critical defence assets and location of the terrorists was already available in the public domain at the time of reporting. It was also pointed out that other news channels which had reported on similar information had not been hauled up by the MIB.

However, the MIB, in its order dated January 2, 2016, held that NDTV India’s coverage contravened Rule 6(1)(p) of the Programme and Advertising Code (the ‘Programme Code’ or ‘Code’) issued under the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994 (‘Cable TV Rules’). In exercise of its powers under the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 (‘Cable TV Act’) and the Guidelines for Uplinking of Television Channels from India, 2011, the MIB imposed a ‘token penalty’ of a day’s ban on the broadcast of the channel.

Rule 6(1)(p) of the Programme Code:

Rule 6 of the Code sets out the restrictions on the content of programmes and advertisements that can be broadcasted on cable TV. Rule 6(1)(p) and (q) were added recently. Rule 6(1)(p) was introduced after concerns were expressed regarding the real-time coverage of sensitive incidents like the Mumbai and Gurdaspur terror attacks by Indian media. It seeks to prevent disclosure of sensitive information during such live coverage that could act as possible information sources for terror operators.

Rule 6(1)(p) states that: “No programme should be carried in the cable service which contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces, wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government, till such operation concludes.

Explanation: For the purposes of this clause, it is clarified that “anti-terrorist operation” means such operation undertaken to bring terrorists to justice, which includes all engagements involving justifiable use of force between security forces and terrorists.”

Rule 6(1)(p), though necessary to regulate overzealous media coverage especially during incidents like terrorist attacks, is vague and ambiguous in its phrasing. The term ‘live coverage’ has not been defined in the Cable TV Rules, which makes it difficult to assess its precise meaning and scope. It is unclear whether ‘live coverage’ means only live video feed of the operations or whether live updates through media reporting without visuals will also be considered ‘live coverage’.

Further, the explanation to Rule 6(1)(p) also leaves a lot of room for subjective interpretation. It is unclear whether the expression “to bring terrorists to justice” implies the counter operations should result in fatalities of the terrorists or if the intention is to include the coverage of the trial and conviction of the terrorists, if they were caught alive. If so, it would be highly impractical to bar such coverage under Rule 6(1)(p). The inherent vagueness of this provision gives wide discretion to the governmental authorities to decide whether channels have violated the provisions of the Code.

In this context, it is important to highlight that the Supreme Court had struck down Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act, 2000 in the case of Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, on the ground of being vague and overboard. The Court had held that the vague and imprecise nature of the provision had a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression. Following from this, it will be interesting to see the stand of the Supreme Court when it tests the constitutionality of Rule 6(1)(p) in light of the strict standards laid down in Shreya Singhal and a spate of other judgments.

Freedom of Speech under Article 19(1)(a)

The right of the media to report news is rooted in the fundamental right to free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. Every right has a corresponding duty, and accordingly, the right of the media to report news is accompanied by a duty to function responsibly while reporting information in the interest of the public. The freedom of the media is not absolute or unbridled, and reasonable restrictions can be placed on it under Article 19(2).

In the present case, it can be argued that Rule 6(1)(p) fails to pass the scrutiny of Article 19(2) due to inherent vagueness in the text of the provision. However, the Supreme Court may be reluctant to deem the provision unconstitutional. This reluctance was demonstrated for instance, when the challenge to the constitutionality of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 and its attendant guidelines, for containing vague restrictions in the context of certifying films, was dismissed by the Supreme Court. The Censor Board has used the wide discretion available to it for placing unreasonable restrictions while certifying films. If the Supreme Court continues to allow such restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression, the Programme Code is likely to survive judicial scrutiny.

Who should regulate?

Another important issue that the Supreme Court should decide in the present case is whether the MIB had the power to impose such a ban on NDTV India. Under the current regulatory regime, there are no statutory bodies governing media infractions. However, there are self-regulatory bodies like the News Broadcast Standards Authority (NBSA) and the Broadcasting Content Complaint’s Council (BCCC).The NBSA is an independent body set up by the News Broadcasters Association for regulating news and current affairs channels. The BCCC is a complaint redressal system established by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation for the non-news sector and is headed by retired judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts. Both the NBSA and the BCCC regularly look into complaints regarding violations of the Programme Code. These bodies are also authorized to issue advisories, condemn, levy penalties and direct channels to be taken off air if found in contravention of the Programme Code.

The decision of the MIB was predicated on the recommendation made by IMC which comprises solely of government officials with no journalistic or legal background. The MIB should have considered referring the matter to a regulatory body with domain expertise like the NBSA that addresses such matters on a regular basis or at least should have sought their opinion before arriving at its decision.

Way Forward

Freedom of expression of the press and the impartial and fair scrutiny of government actions and policies is imperative for a healthy democracy. Carte blanche powers with the government to regulate the media as stipulated by Cable TV Act without judicial or other oversight mechanisms pose a serious threat to free speech and the independence of the fourth estate.

The imposition of the ban against NDTV India by the MIB under vague and uncertain provisions can be argued as a case of regulatory overreach and insidious censorship. The perils of such executive intrusion on the freedom of the media will have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech. This can impact the vibrancy of the public discourse and the free flow of information and ideas which sustains a democracy. Although the governmental decision has been stayed, the Supreme Court should intervene and clarify the import of the vague terms used in the Programme Code to ensure that the freedom of the press is not compromised and fair and impartial news reporting is not stifled under the threat of executive action.

I&B Ministry forms Committee to regulate content in Government Advertising

Written By Joshita Pai

Following the direction by the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an order last month establishing a three member committee to effectuate the Supreme Court Guidelines on Content Regulation of Government Advertising. Government advertising refers to the use of public funds by ruling parties to project their achievements or make announcements about upcoming initiatives. These advertisements however, have occasionally been politically motivated, demonstrating the need for the guidelines issued by the Court in the Common Cause judgment. The guidelines were issued on the basis of a report submitted by a Court-appointed committee on the issue of use of public funds in government advertising.

According to the recent MIB order, the Supreme Court Guidelines will function as a stopgap arrangement until a legislation comes into force to regulate the content projected in government sponsored advertisements. The body set up by the Ministry will address complaints from the general public on violation of the guidelines prescribed by  the Court. The Committee will be assisted by a member secretary, and will be set up parallelly at the state level, appointed by the respective State Governments. The three member body will be responsible for implementation of the SC guidelines on regulating content in government advertising.

Government Advertising

Government advertising is often regarded as informative and in public interest since it facilitates circulation of necessary information with respect to upcoming welfare schemes or the progress of government initiatives. However, advertisements of this nature are often used gain political mileage. This practice has been criticized for several reasons, ranging from arbitrary use of public funds to non-objective presentation of information. Colourful presentation of information on the part of the government does not foster public interest. The right to freedom of speech and expression exercisable by the government is not dispensable but Article 19 also grants the right to information, and accurate information at that, which stands in equal measure. Balancing conflicting interests in this regard is a herculean task.

Government advertising, unlike political advertising which also often transcends permissible boundaries, is sponsored by the use of public funds that governments in power have access to. According to the Election Commission of India, the expenditure on government sponsored advertisements is incurred by the public exchequer and is contrary to the spirit of free and fair election, as the party in power gets an undue advantage over other parties and candidates. The practice has beckoned the need for an oversight authority and a set of workable standards to regulate such advertising, which have been recommended time and again, most recently in the Law Commission Report on Electoral Reforms. Moreover, the Election Commission too has assessed the mushrooming phenomenon of advertising by existing governments. In furtherance of these observations, the ECI recommended that advertisements for achievements of existing governments, either Central or State, in any manner, should be prohibited for a period of six months prior to the date of expiry of the term of the House.

The Guidelines issued by the Supreme Court     

The case that brought about the guidelines was set in motion when Common Cause and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation sought to restrain the Union of India and State Governments from using public funds on government advertising. The petitioners emphasized that the object of these advertisements is generally to promote functionaries and candidates of a political party. One of the primary objections raised in the case was that such advertising is generally politically motivated. The petition called for the Court to issue comprehensive guidelines on usage of public funds on such advertisements. Giving due weightage to the plea, the Court appointed a committee to examine best practices in order to demarcate permissible advertising during campaigning from politically motivated advertisements. The committee submitted its report to the Supreme Court in September 2014 which contained a set of guidelines on content regulation in government advertising. These guidelines will be implemented by the committee established by the MIB.  

According to the Guidelines, government advertising “includes any message, conveyed and paid for by the government for placement in media such as newspapers, television, radio, internet, cinema and such other media but does not include classified advertisements; and includes both copy (written text/audio) and creatives (visuals/video/multimedia) put out in print, electronic, outdoor or digital media.”

The guidelines further suggest that government advertisements should be politically neutral and should not include photographs of political leaders unless it is essential, in which case only the photographs of the Prime Minister/Chief Minister or President/Governor may be used.  The enforceability of the guidelines has been left to the three member body which shall recommend actions accordingly.

According to the Guidelines, regulation of content should be guided by five fundamental principles:

  1.  Advertising Campaigns to be related to Government responsibilities: The content of the government advertisement should be relevant to the government’s obligations and the rights of the citizens. 
  2. Advertisement materials should be presented in an objective, fair, and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign: The content and the design of the advertisement should be executed after exercise of due care and should not present previous policies of the government as new ones.
  3. Advertisement materials should be objective and not directed at promoting political interests of ruling party: The advertisement should steer clear of making political arguments and should be neutral in nature and should not seek to influence public support.
  4. Advertisement Campaigns must be justified and undertaken in an efficient and cost-effective manner: Optimum use of public funds and cost-effective advertisements reflect a need-based advertising approach
  5. Government advertising must comply with legal requirements and financial regulations and procedures: The advertisements must be compliant with existing laws such as election laws and ownership rights.

Government advertisements are issued on several occasions. They are issued to present the completion of a successful tenure, to commemorate anniversaries of people and to announce public welfare projects. In these instances, the object of the advertisement can be achieved with objective presentation of information. The committee set up singularly seeks to ensure that the right of the government to use funds to sponsor advertisements is not misused.  

TRAI releases Regulations enforcing Net Neutrality, prohibits Differential Pricing

Written by Siddharth Manohar

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come out with a set of regulations explicitly prohibiting differential pricing for data services in India.

3. Prohibition of discriminatory tariffs.— (1) No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.

(2) No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content

TRAI recently concluded a public consultation process regarding differential pricing in data services (resources). The consultation paper covered all differently-priced or zero-rated services offered through data. The process has witnessed tremendous public participation, with a spirited campaign by Internet activists (Savetheinternet.in) and a counter-campaign by Facebook where it garnered support through users by using the narrative of connecting those who have no access (https://www.facebook.com/savefreebasics).

CCG submitted a formal response as part of this process, which you can read here, and filed an additional counter-comment signed by ten different civil society and research organizations.

The consultation process also involved a public discussion on the questions raised, where the usual suspects were all present – telecom companies arguing for differential pricing, and internet activists against. Also present were startup- and user- representatives.

Facebook’s telecom partner for carrying the Free Basics platform in India —Reliance Communications — was then instructed by TRAI to put a hold on rolling out Free Basics until they came up with a clear position on differential pricing and net neutrality. The regulator later confirmed that they received a compliance report to this effect as well. Facebook had been aggressively pursuing its campaign to collect support in favour of its platform for the entire duration of the public consultation.

TRAI has clarified that these regulations ‘may’ be reviewed after a two year period, or at an earlier time as decided by the Authority. An exception to the prohibition has also been included, to account for emergency services and services offered during ‘times of grave public emergency’. An additional exception is that of closed networks which charge a special tariff for their usage.

[We will shortly update the piece with more analysis of the regulations]