The question of when intermediaries are liable, or conversely not liable, for content they host or transmit is often at the heart of regulating content on the internet. This is especially true in India, where the Government has relied almost exclusively on intermediary liability to regulate online content. With the advent of the Intermediary Guidelines 2021, and their subsequent amendment in October 2022, there has been a paradigm shift in the regulation of online intermediaries in India.
To help understand this new regulatory reality, the Centre for Communication Governance (CCG) is releasing its ‘Report on Intermediary Liability in India’ (December 2022).
This report aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the regulation of online intermediaries and their obligations with respect to unlawful content. It updates and expands on the Centre for Communication Governance’s 2015 report documenting the liability of online intermediaries to now cover the decisions in Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India and Myspace vs. Super Cassettes Industries Ltd, the Intermediary Guidelines 2021 (including the October 2022 Amendment), the E-Commerce Rules, and the IT Blocking Rules. It captures the over two decades of regulatory and judicial practice on the issue of intermediary liability since the adoption of the IT Act. The report aims to provide practitioners, lawmakers and regulators, judges, and academics with valuable insights as they embark on shaping the coming decades of intermediary liability in India.
Some key insights that emerge from the report are summarised below:
Limitations of Section 79 (‘Safe Harbour’) Approach: In the cases analysed in this report, there is little judicial consistency in the application of secondarily liability principles to intermediaries, including the obligations set out in Intermediary Guidelines 2021, and monetary damages for transmitting or hosting unlawful content are almost never imposed on intermediaries. This suggests that there are significant limitations to the regulatory impact of obligations imposed on intermediaries as pre-conditions to safe harbour.
Need for clarity on content moderation and curation: The text of Section 79(2) of the IT Act grants intermediaries safe harbour provided they act as mere conduits, not interfering with the transmission of content. There exists ambiguity over whether content moderation and curation activities would cause intermediaries to violate Section 79(2) and lose safe harbour. The Intermediary Guidelines 2021 have partially remedied this ambiguity by expressly stating that voluntary content moderation will not result in an intermediary ‘interfering’ with the transmission under Section 79(2). However, ultimately amendments to the IT Act are required to provide regulatory certainty.
Intermediary status and immunity on a case-by-case basis: An entity’s classification as an intermediary is not a status that applies across all its operations (like a ‘company’ or a ‘partnership’), but rather the function it is performing vis-à-vis the specific electronic content it is sued in connection with. Courts should determine whether an entity is an ‘intermediary’ and whether it complied with the conditions of Section 79 in relation to the content it is being sued for. Consistently making this determination at a preliminary stage of litigation would greatly further the efficacy of Section 79’s safe harbour approach.
Concerns over GACs: While the October 2022 Amendment stipulates that two members of every GAC shall be independent, no detail is provided as to how such independence shall be secured (e.g., security of tenure and salary, oath of office, minimum judicial qualifications etc.). Such independence is vital as GAC members are appointed by the Union Government but the Union Government or its functionaries or instrumentalities may also be parties before a GAC. Further, given that the GACs are authorities ‘under the control of the Government of India’, they have an obligation to abide by the principles of natural justice, due process, and comply with the Fundamental Rights set out in the Constitution. If a GAC directs the removal of content beyond the scope of Article 19(2) of the Constitution, questions of an impermissible restriction on free expression may be raised.
Actual knowledge in 2022: The October 2022 Amendment requires intermediaries to make reasonable efforts to “cause” their users not to upload certain categories of content and ‘act on’ user complaints against content within seventy-two hours. Requiring intermediaries to remove content at the risk of losing safe harbour in circumstances other than the receipt of a court or government order prima facie violates the decision of Shreya Singhal. Further, India’s approach to notice and takedown continues to lack a system for reinstatement of content.
Uncertainty over government blocking power: Section 69A of the IT Act expressly grants the Union Government power to block content, subject to a hearing by the originator (uploader) or intermediary. However, Section 79(3)(b) of the IT Act may also be utilised to require intermediaries to take down content absent some of the safeguards provided in Section 69A. The fact that the Government has relied on both provisions in the past and that it does not voluntarily disclose blocking orders makes a robust legal analysis of the blocking power challenging.
Hearing originators when blocking: The decision in Shreya Singhal and the requirements of due process support the understanding that the originator must be notified and granted a hearing under the IT Blocking Rules prior to their content being restricted under Section 69A. However, evidence suggests that the government regularly does not provide originators with hearings, even where the originator is known to the government. Instead, the government directly communicates with intermediaries away from the public eye, raising rule of law concerns.
Issues with first originators: Both the methods proposed for ‘tracing first originators’ (hashing unique messages and affixing encrypted originator information) are easily circumvented, require significant technical changes to the architecture of messaging services, offer limited investigatory or evidentiary value, and will likely undermine the privacy and security of all users to catch a few bad actors. Given these considerations, it is unlikely that such a measure would satisfy the proportionality test laid out by current Supreme Court doctrine.
Broad and inconsistent injunctions: An analysis of injunctions against online content reveals that the contents of court orders are often sweeping, imposing vague compliance burdens on intermediaries. When issuing injunctions against online content, courts should limit blocking or removals to specific URLs. Further courts should be cognisant of the fact that intermediaries have themselves not committed any wrongdoing, and the effect of an injunction should be seen as meaningfully dissuading users from accessing content rather than an absolute prohibition.
This report was made possible by the generous support we received from National Law University Delhi. CCG would like to thank our Faculty Advisor Dr. Daniel Mathew for his continuous direction and mentorship. This report would not be possible without the support provided by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, South Asia. We are grateful for comments received from the Data Governance Network and its reviewers. CCG would also like to thank Faiza Rahman and Shashank Mohan for their review and comments, and Jhalak M. Kakkar and Smitha Krishna Prasad for facilitating the report. We thank Oshika Nayak of National Law University Delhi for providing invaluable research assistance for this report. Lastly, we would also like to thank all members of CCG for the many ways in which they supported the report, in particular, the ever-present and ever-patient Suman Negi and Preeti Bhandari for the unending support for all the work we do.