The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”) proposed amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“Intermediary Guidelines”) on January 17, 2023. The draft amendments aim to regulate online gaming, but also seek to have intermediaries “make reasonable efforts” to cause their users not to upload or share content identified as “fake” or “false” by the Press Information Bureau (“PIB”), any Union Government department or authorised agency (See proposed amendment to Rule 3(1)(b)(v).) The draft amendments in their current form raise certain concerns that we believe merit additional scrutiny.
CCG submitted comments on the proposed amendment to Rule 3(1)(b)(v), highlighting its key feedback and concerns. The comments were authored by Archit Lohani and Vasudev Devadasan and reviewed by Sachin Dhawan and Jhalak M. Kakkar. Some of the key issues raised in our comments are summarised below.
- Misinformation, fake, and false, include both unlawful and lawful expression
The proposed amendment does not define the term “misinformation” or provide any guidance on how determinations that content is “fake” or “false” are arrived at. Misinformation can include various forms of content, and experts have identified up to seven subtypes of misinformation such as: imposter content; fabricated content; false connection; false context; manipulated content; misleading content; and satire or parody. Different subtypes of misinformation can cause different types of harm (or no harm at all) and are treated differently under the law. Misinformation or false information thus includes both lawful and unlawful speech (e.g., satire is constitutionally protected speech).
Within the broad ambit of misinformation, the draft amendment does not provide sufficient guidance to the PIB and government departments on what sort of expression is permissible and what should be restricted. The draft amendment effectively provides them with unfettered discretion to restrict both unlawful and lawful speech. When seeking to regulate misinformation, experts, platforms, and other countries have drawn up detailed definitions that take into consideration factors such as intention, form of sharing, virality, context, impact, public interest value, and public participation value. These definitions recognize the potential multiplicity of context, content, and propagation techniques. In the absence of clarity over what types of content may be restricted based on a clear definition of misinformation, the draft amendment will restrict both unlawful speech and constitutionally protected speech. It will thus constitute an overbroad restriction on free speech.
- Restricting information solely on the ground that it is “false” is constitutionally impermissible
Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution allows the government to place reasonable restrictions on free speech in the interest of the sovereignty, integrity, or security of India, its friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or contempt of court. The Supreme Court has ruled that these grounds are exhaustive and speech cannot be restricted for reasons beyond Article 19(2), including where the government seeks to block content online. Crucially, Article 19(2) does not permit the State to restrict speech on the ground that it is false. If the government were to restrict “false information that may imminently cause violence”, such a restriction would be permissible as it would relate to the ground of “public order” in Article 19(2). However, if enacted, the draft amendment would restrict online speech solely on the ground that it is declared “false” or “fake” by the Union Government. This amounts to a State restriction on speech for reasons beyond those outlined in Article 19(2), and would thus be unconstitutional. Restrictions on free speech must have a direct connection to the grounds outlined in Article 19(2) and must be a necessary and proportionate restriction on citizens’ rights.
- Amendment does not adhere with the procedures set out in Section 69A of the IT Act
The Supreme Court upheld Section 69A of the IT Act in Shreya Singhal v Union of India inter alia because it permitted the government blocking of online content only on grounds consistent with Article 19(2) and provided important procedural safeguards, including a notice, hearing, and written order of blocking that can be challenged in court. Therefore, it is evident that the constitutionality of the government’s blocking power over is contingent on the substantive and procedural safeguards provided by Section 69A and the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009. The proposed amendment to the Intermediary Guidelines would permit the Union Government to restrict online speech in a manner that does not adhere to these safeguards. It would permit the blocking of content on grounds beyond those specified in Article 19(2), based on a unilateral determination by the Union Government, without a specific procedure for notice, hearing, or a written order.
- Alternate methods to counter the spread of misinformation
Any response to misinformation on social media platforms should be based on empirical evidence on the prevalence and harms of misinformation on social media. Thus, as a first step, social media companies should be required to provide greater transparency and facilitate researcher access to data. There are alternative methods to regulate the spread of misinformation that may be more effective and preserve free expression, such as labelling or flagging misinformation. We note that there does not yet exist widespread legal and industry consensus on standards for independent fact-checking, but organisations such as the ‘International Fact-Checking Network’ (IFCN) have laid down certain principles that independent fact-checking organisations should comply with. Having platforms label content pursuant to IFCN fact checks, and even notify users when the content they have interacted with has subsequently been flagged by an IFCN fact checker would provide users with valuable informational context without requiring content removal.