13 organizations, with the likes of Access Now, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19 and Human Rights Watch amongst others have urged the central government to suspend the implementation of its new IT rules and described it as “unconstitutional”. Activists say the new rules are a political tool to curb dissent and control the critique of the government.
“Suspend the implementation of the intermediary rules and commit to reviewing them, including undertaking sustained, meaningful and broadly participatory consultation with the public at large,” they said in a letter. “The government should also be transparent when it asks social media companies to take down content.”
The organizations took it upon themselves to highlight the matter after the government implemented the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code to regulate online content. The contentious provisions include the emergency blocking powers of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, mandatory registration of digital news organizations with the government and the encouragement of self-censorship. They called the rules unconstitutional and as an assault on fundamental rights of freedom of expression.
“These rules were ostensibly created to combat fake news, restrict illegal content, aid public authorities in better tracing illegal activities online, and improve grievance redress mechanisms for users,” the letter stated. “However, they create a framework for unnecessary and disproportionate interference with freedom of expression. This can legitimize political or other bias in content governance, reducing the space for broad based expression, including criticism and dissent.”
The activists pointed out that the implementation of the rules undermine end-to-end encryption, resulting in a chilling effect on freedom of expression and freedom of association even on private messaging platforms, and put the personal data and privacy of users in India at risk.
The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), in March, had said the rules will lead to excessive government control of digital news and OTT content due to the three-tier mechanism. In a statement, the IFF said the first tier of control remains with the government as the self-regulatory body and its Chairperson will be technically appointed by the media community, however, the power to approve its composition is with the I&B Ministry.