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Government’s emergency powers for online content

  • Published
    24th Jan, 2023
Context

Recently the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) directed YouTube and Twitter to take down links sharing the BBC documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’. 

About the directives of the Ministry:

  • The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) has directed the social media platforms for allegedly casting aspersions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court of India, sowing divisions among various communities, and making unsubstantiated allegations regarding actions of foreign governments in India.
  • This was done in consideration of the order under the emergency provisions of the Information Technology Rules, 2021.

What does the emergency provision under IT rules say?

  • Under the Information Technology Rules, 2021 (IT Rules, 2021), the MIB has the power to issue content takedown notices to social media intermediaries like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in emergency situations for which no delay is acceptable.
  • The Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting may or can if he is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient and justifiable for blocking public access to any information or part thereof through any computer resource and as an interim measure issue such directions as he may consider necessary to such identified or identifiable persons, publishers or intermediary in control of such computer resource hosting such information or part thereof without giving him an opportunity of hearing.
  • These emergency notices can be issued if the MIB believes that the content can impact the sovereignty, integrity, defence, or security of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order, or to prevent incitement to any cognisable offence.

Since 2021, the MIB has used the emergency provisions at least seven times, most prominently for YouTube. These seven instances are known because the Ministry communicated about the action through press releases.

What can users whose content has been impacted do?

  • If a platform has on its own taken down some content, the user can approach the grievance officer of the platform to raise a dispute, which they are to redress within 15 days.
  • However, if a platform has taken down content on the basis of the emergency provisions in the Rules, the legislation does not offer any direct recourse. The only option users have in this case is to approach the courts.

Information Technology Rules, 2021:

  • The Rules aim to empower ordinary users of social media and OTT platforms with a mechanism for redressal and timely resolution of their grievances with the help of a Grievance Redressal Officer (GRO) who should be a resident in India.
  • Safety measures: Special emphasis has been given to the protection of women and children from sexual offences, fake news and another misuse of social media.
  • Source identification: Identification of the “first originator of the information” would be required in case of an offence related to the sovereignty and integrity of India.  
  • Appointment of Chief Compliance Officer: A Chief Compliance Officer, a resident of India, also needs to be appointed and that person shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and Rules.
  • Complaint monitoring: A monthly compliance report mentioning the details of complaints received and action taken on the complaints would be necessary.
  • Code of Ethics: The OTT platforms, online news and digital media entities, on the other hand, would need to follow a Code of Ethics.
  • Self-classification: OTT platforms would be called as ‘publishers of online curated content’ under the new rules.
  • They would have to self-classify the content into five categories based on age and use parental locks for ages above 13 or higher. They also need to include age verification mechanisms for content classified as ‘Adult’.
  • Redressal mechanism: A three-level grievance redressal mechanism has been mandated. This includes the appointment of a GRO, self-regulatory bodies registered with the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) to look after the Code of Ethics and a Charter for the self-regulating bodies formulated by MIB
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