I have put a draft of my paper titled ‘Gatekeeper Liability and Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution on SSRN. You can read it here. It will eventually be published in the NUJS Law Review.
Alternatively, this essay (written for a UPenn/ CIS/ ORF publication) based on the paper sets out my argument briefly.
The press was once the most important medium of mass communication. Indira Gandhi understood this well and used the gatekeeping function of large media houses to prevent citizens from accessing critical information. The press’s function as an information gatekeeper is protected by jurisprudence, but this protection is articulated as ‘freedom of the press’, making it a medium-specific protection. As the Internet increasingly replaces the press as the most important source of information for citizens, structural protections need to extend online. The online intermediary may be the new avatar of the information gatekeeper, third parties who perform an essential function in transmitting information from speakers to audiences – they are potential choke points that the state can use to cut off flows of information.
Aside from the press freedom norms, much of our freedom of expression jurisprudence deals with the state’s relationship with the speaker. The contours of our freedom of expression rights have formed in this context. It is relatively easy for the judiciary to grasp how statutory provisions like section 66A of the Information Technology Act impact freedom of expression. Here the law targets the speaker directly and any unjust application or chilling effect is more visible. It is also more likely to be resisted by the target of regulation, since the speaker is always interested in her own right to speak.
Indirect regulation of speech is quite different. The law is aimed at information gatekeepers, who may choose not to publicise censorship and who may not be as interested in protected the speech as the original speaker. Scholars have described these gatekeepers as the ‘weakest link’, through which speech is most vulnerable to state excesses.
Information gatekeepers and Indian law
It is common enough for states to use ‘middle-men’ to enforce change in behaviour when it is difficult to control the primary offender’s conduct directly. For example, since it is difficult to directly compel minors to avoid drinking, the law targets alcohol-sellers, leveraging their gatekeeping function to cut off the supply of alcohol to minors.
Information gatekeepers were used to regulate the flow of information even in the pre-digital world. Publishers and booksellers were held liable for circulating banned publications in many countries including India. India has a particularly pernicious rule criminalizing the circulation of obscene content. This comes from the Supreme Court’s judgment in Ranjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra, that is well known for its interpretation of obscenity law in the context of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. The other critical element of this judgment received almost no attention – the liability of a bookseller for the circulation of obscene content.
D.H. Lawrence was never prosecuted in India for his book. The ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ case in the Supreme Court was about the liability of the owners of Happy Book Stall, a bookshop at which ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was sold. The Supreme Court said the booksellers were liable for circulation of the obscene content even if they argued that they were unaware that a book contained such content. Consider what this means: booksellers cannot plead ignorance of obscene content within any of the books they sell, and will be liable nonetheless. The state only has to prove that the booksellers circulated obscene content, and not that they did so knowingly. It is lucky that this part of the Supreme Court judgment went largely unnoticed since it could easily be used by the intolerant file criminal complaints that shut down large bookstores all over the country – all they need to do is look for a few books that the law would categorise as obscene. Booksellers would then have to scour every page and paragraph of each book they sell to weed it out content that might get them arrested – this would make it very difficult to do business.
Online intermediaries as information gatekeepers
Intermediary liability first received attention in India after the infamous ‘DPS-MMS’ explicit video, featuring two minors, ended up being sold on Baazee.com. The Managing Director of the company that owned the website was arrested. The fact that he had no knowledge that this content was shared on the website was irrelevant thanks to the Supreme Court’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ verdict. This situation made it clear that if the law applicable to bookshops continued to apply to online intermediaries, online platforms would not be able to function in India. A platform like Facebook or Youtube hosts too much user content to be able to sift through it and proactively filter out everything obscene.
Fortunately, the amendment of the Information Technology Act (IT Act) gave Internet intermediaries immunity from this liability for third party content. The immunity was conditional. Intermediaries that edit or otherwise have knowledge of the content that they transmit are not immune from liability. To remain immune from liability, intermediaries must comply with certain legal obligations to take down content or block it in response to government orders or court orders. These obligations also leverage the gate-keeping function of these intermediaries to regulate online content – internet service providers and online platforms can ensure that certain kinds of content are inaccessible in India.
Why gatekeepers matter
Although information intermediaries existed in the pre-internet information ecosystem, their role is critical in the context of online content – several intermediaries mediate our access to online content. Some of these, like the gateways through which the Indian network connects to the global network, are located in India and are easy for the government to control since they are subject to onerous licenses and are few enough in number for the state to be able to control all of them successfully. Other intermediaries like Facebook or Google, are online platforms, and most of these have offices outside Indian jurisdiction.
Discussions about freedom of expression that focus on the direct relationship between the state and the speaker are not helpful in this context. This kind of reasoning tends to ignore the collateral effects of certain kinds of regulation of speech – the ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ case case is a classic illustration of this with its tremendous impact on the liability of all booksellers and later on Baazee.com and other web based platforms.
As the new media make gatekeepers and intermediaries more critical to the controlling the flow of information, we need to focus on other dimensions of freedom of expression if we are ensure that effective safeguards are put in place to protect speech. Our jurisprudence on freedom of the press offers some degree of protection to newspapers so that regulation of their business structure cannot be used to influence their content, but this form of gatekeeper protection is limited to the press. There are information gatekeepers other than the press in India, and it is time that we think carefully about protecting the information ecosystem. Free speech principles need to accommodate themselves to a media ecosystem that is increasingly dependent on information gatekeepers.
Freedom of expression and access to information
It is time that our jurisprudence started focusing more on citizens’ rights to access information. Although this right that has been recognized in India, it needs to be outlined in more detail. In the well-known judgment in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, which struck down section 66A of the Information Technology Act, the Supreme Court failed to deal with intermediary liability adequately because it did not use the lens of access to information and gatekeeper liability. Using traditional jurisprudence that focuses on the direct impact of regulation of speech, the court gave content-creators the right to a hearing and a right to appeal blocks and removals of their content wherever possible. However, it completely disregarded the rights of citizens to access online content.
The content blocking system in India makes all government blocking orders confidential. This means that when an intermediary is required to block content under the IT Act, users might imagine that the decision was a private decision made by the intermediary. Since the intermediary is unlikely to be willing to spend resources battling for the various kinds of content it hosts, any blocking process that counts on the intermediary to offer up sufficient resistance to unconstitutional blocking orders errs egregiously. The law must offer those who are actually affected – the publishers and the readers of the information – a chance to fight for content that they have the right to circulate and access. Of these, the publishers of information do have some right to make their case before the government committee making the blocking decision thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. But this judgment does nothing for citizens who could lose access to a wealth of information if the government might unreasonably blocks content created by someone in another country. The content publisher would not be in a position to defend its content in India, and citizens have not been given any avenue to defend their rights to view the content before the government committee making the decision.
The focus on access to information has been discussed many scholars, from Alexander Meiklejohn onwards. Amartya Sen has written about the salience of public discourse in a democracy. Robert Post and Jack Balkin have articulated in the detail the importance of focusing on the free flow of information or access to information, rather than on the right of individual speakers. The right we refer to as ‘freedom of expression’ is about much more than the freedom to say what one pleases. It is the foundational principle from which our rules about free flow of information have been built.
Section 66A was an example of what Jack Balkin characterises as ‘old school’ regulation of speech. This consists of criminal penalties, injunction and damages aimed directly at the speaker or publisher. The Supreme Court’s treatment of section 66A reflects its comfort with this form of regulation and its implications for freedom of expression.
Intermediary liability, and the use of Internet gatekeepers to control the flow of online information follows a different system: it uses control over the infrastructure or platforms of speech to exercise control over speech. Jack Balkin characterizes this as ‘new school’ regulation. Through ‘collateral censorship’, a third party is made to block or remove a primary speaker or publisher’s speech. For example, a government order or a court order requiring that certain online content be blocked, does this by requiring and internet service provider or online platform to censor the information. New school regulation works necessitates co-operation of these third party intermediaries like internet service providers and online platforms with the government, and this can be achieved by compelling them to co-operate through the law or by using softer means to co-opt them.
New school regulation must be assessed in terms of the collateral harm that it causes. It is not a question of whether online pornography should be blocked or not anymore. It is a question of whether the process used to get intermediaries to block the pornography can be abused to block constitutionally protected speech. We have already recognized the collateral effects of structural regulation in the context of press freedom, and the Supreme Court has barred certain kinds of structural interference with the media that might impact their reporting. It is time to create a version of this principle for online speech, and to think in terms of access and free flow of information.
Ranjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra
Shreya Singhal v. Union of India
Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India v. Cricket Association of Bengal, (1995) 2 SCC 161.
Sakal Papers v Union of India
Amartya Sen, Idea of Justice, 321-337 (2009)
Chinmayi Arun, Gatekeeper Liability and Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, NUJS Law Review [forthcoming-2015]
Jack Balkin, ‘Old School/ New-School Speech Regulation’, 127 Harv. L. Rev. 2296
Jack Balkin, ‘The first amendment is an information policy’, Hofstra Law Review 41 (2013)
Robert Post, Participatory Democracy and Free Speech, 97 Virginia L. Rev. 3 (2011).
Seth Kreimer, Censorship by Proxy: the First Amendment, Internet Intermediaries, and the Problem of the Weakest Link, Penn Law: Legal Scholarship Repository (2006)