How the New Information Technology Rules, 2021 curb freedom of expression in India

Photo by Christian Wiediger via Unsplash

By Saumya Rastogi
Boston University News Service

The Information Technology Rules, 2021, which regulate social media and OTT (over-the-top) platforms, were notified by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Feb. 25. On paper, these rules seek compliance of the law and grievance redressal of social media users and digital news publishers. In reality, it is monitoring anti-national content on these platforms.

This process started in 2018 when the Supreme Court of India told the center to form guidelines to eliminate child pornography, rape and gangrape videos online.

In 2020, this process continued. An ad-hoc committee of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) publicized its report after studying the alarming rise of pornography on social media. It recommended identifying the first originator of such content. 

What it also did was bring video streaming OTT platforms under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. OTT platforms, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, distribute streaming media over the internet.

The noose has tightened further in 2021. 

According to the government, users of social media and OTT platforms did not have a strong complaint mechanism to register and address their issues within a defined timeframe.

In a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release, India’s government said it promotes social media companies to earn profits in India. Still, they have to abide by the constitutional laws of India. The release said that the center acknowledges and respects the right of every Indian to criticize as an essential ingredient of democracy. However, the government added that the “increase of social media enables the citizens but also raises some serious concerns which have grown in recent times.”

The rules are not protective of every individual. The central government can ask social media intermediaries to disclose the “first originator” of information. The intermediary is not obligated to share any information with the first originator about the misuse of social media. The originator’s rights are not protected. 

Before these rules came into place, supporters of the center filed complaints against journalists and activists claiming they invoked sedition. The supporters have been registering First Information Reports (FIR).

The perception of what threatens the country’s security or what is construed as an offense against public peace has changed significantly. Any form of dissent against the government is considered to be a threat.

Recently, the farmer’s protest tweeted about the protests. Twitter suspended their accounts. ANI later revealed that this was done under the Union home minister’s instructions, Amit Shah, according to unnamed sources. Farmer’s protests began in Sept. 2020 in response to the three acts passed by Parliament.

In addition to the acts passed by Parliament, the government is attempting to gain more control over digital news and OTT platforms.

Since these platforms did not self-regulate, as I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar said during a media briefing on Feb. 25, the government felt compelled to step in.

“When Capitol Hill is attacked, social media supports police action,” Javadekar said. “But when there is an aggressive attack on the Red Fort — a symbol of India’s freedom and where the PM unfurls the national flag — there shouldn’t be any double standards.”

Recently, Amazon Prime was under pressure when its show, “Tandav,” was accused of hurting the religious sentiments of the audience.

The show reportedly showed a controversial scene featuring Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub, dressed as Lord Shiva, speaking about ‘Azadi’ (freedom). After numerous complaints, the makers released a statement apologizing for unintentionally hurting people’s sentiments and agreed to snip ‘problematic’ sequences. 

Amazon’s apology was not enough for many. People demanded the arrest of “Tandav” members. 

Moreover, the Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij released a previous statement saying that the I&B ministry should prevent web series from being released before passing the censor board’s screen test.

“The series should be immediately removed from the Amazon platform because it attacks our system, politics, social fabric, the young generation and the Prime Minister’s office,” Vij said.

This is not the only show being criticized on an OTT platform.

“Bombay Begums,” a Netflix show, went through a similar crisis when the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) asked the platform to cancel the show.

The commission added that content like Bombay Begums could “pollute young minds” and result in children’s abuse and exploitation. 

The show had reportedly depicted a 13-year-old snorting cocaine and “a young girl sending inappropriate selfies showing her breasts to a boy.” The committee took issue with this and filed complaints.

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) became aware of these issues and initiated guidelines and recommendations to the government regarding these new rules. 

First, IFF said that the new rules curb the freedom of expression and invade the privacy of social media users. Second, IFF stated that on requests, social media takes down posts and tweets, which has a chilling effect on speech. Lastly, to implement the “first originator” rule, the platforms will have to “fingerprint” each message. This may defeat end-to-end encryption. Consequently, every user’s privacy will be compromised to investigate crimes committed by a minuscule.

IFF added that these rules be put through the public consultation process in line with the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy adopted on Feb. 5, 2014. 

It further added that any definitional vagueness is removed and there should be provisional safeguards to takedown requests. 

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