IT minister explains need for changed rules

The government is “not really interested in playing the role of an ombudsman” but is taking that responsibility “reluctantly” as the intermediaries’ grievance redressal mechanism is “broken”, union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar told the media on Saturday.

The remarks by the minister of state for electronics and information technology come a day after the government amendments to the IT Rules. Through these amendments, the government will now appoint a grievance appellate committee to adjudicate grievances related to intermediaries’ content moderation decisions. Newslaundry had earlier on several questions surrounding the changes.

The proposed creation of these committees has also raised concerns about censorship. However, Chandrasekhar strongly denied all allegations and said the government’s mission was to make the internet open, safe and accountable for all users. 

While multiple questions were raised about the composition, working, scope of powers and details of the GAC, the minister side-stepped most of them and said that these details will be released later after the government has formulated the framework. 

“The GAC is here to sit as an appellate body in the event that the consumers, who are the most important stakeholders in internet, are dissatisfied with the process run by the intermediaries…we have lakhs of messages in the government today from citizens saying that either our grievance has only been acknowledged or we have received no response at all”, he said, talking about how the grievance redressal mechanism does not function or the grievance officer is not responsive enough.

On being asked if the GAC would have the power to take suo motu recognition of problematic content and instruct intermediaries accordingly, Chandrasekhar said that as of today, the government did not see the need to grant the GAC suo motu powers. 

‘Don’t want to interfere with functioning of courts’

Asked how multiple GACs would be set up and if they would perhaps be regional in nature given the vast volume of grievances that might be received, the minister said that the problem is that the intermediaries did not create the capacity to address the volume of complaints. “GAC is a disincentive for the intermediaries to not to continue the status quo casual way of approaching” problematic content. “If nobody will listen in the platforms, the government must listen,” he declared. 

Chandrasekhar said that the current grievance redressal mechanism, which was prescribed in the IT Rules 2021 and was limited to the intermediary appointing a grievance officer, is “broken”. “I have said this repeatedly: this is not an area the government is very keen to get at. We are doing this very, very reluctantly and we are doing this because we have an obligation and duty towards the digital nagriks.”

Chandrasekhar maintained that even though a GAC’s decision is binding on the intermediary, the intermediary still retains the right to approach courts if it is dissatisfied with the GAC’s decision. “We do not want to interfere with the functioning of the courts in any way,” he said. 

The minister did not specify if there is still scope for the GAC to morph into an industry-led self-regulatory body, which is something that multiple industry bodies had suggested during the consultation period. 

Structural details unclear

For Chandrasekhar, the GAC is an “important institution” and will have a “separate structure” and “institutional framework”. He said that the ministry would present such details “very shortly” but refused to provide a more concrete timeline than that. 

The GAC, he said, will be “a digitally hosted platform”. The government will start with one or two committees to begin with and “proliferate as the need for that expands”. 

It is currently not known what this online dispute resolution mechanism would look like, and if and how the complainant and intermediary will present their cases before the GAC, and if all this can be set up by January 28, 2023, which is when the three-month period prescribed in the amended rules lapses. It is also not clear if the government will notify more GACs after the three-month period. Chandrasekhar did not directly answer Newslaundry’s question on this. 

Misinformation included, defamation excluded

“Misinformation is not just about media misinformation (but) about advertising illegal products and services that range from porn to online betting – that is also misinformation. Misinformation is also there in the fintech community, misrepresenting products and services. And of course, misinformation also refers to false information about a particular person,” the minister said.

However, defamatory content was removed from the list of content that needs to be taken down. Chandrasekhar said that this was done because of inputs during the consultation period since establishing whether a piece of content is defamatory is a complicated, legal process that intermediaries do not have the wherewithal to carry out. 

But the minister reiterated that 72 hours is still a very long time for the intermediaries to work with considering the speed at which illegal content goes viral. “I wanted it to be 24 hours but during the consultation, they (industry) said that is too little.”

Linguistic burden on new entrants

In response to Newslaundry’s question about whether each intermediary would have to provide their rules and regulations, privacy policy, and user agreement in 23 languages, as prescribed in the amended rules, Chandrasekhar replied in the affirmative. 

This means that all intermediaries, which, according to the Information Technology Act, include cyber cafes, telecom service providers, web hosts, search engines, payment sites, auction sites, marketplaces, and social media platforms, would have to publish their policies in English and the 22 languages under the eighth schedule of the constitution, including Sanskrit. 

This places onerous burdens on new entrants in the market. To put this into perspective, even all Indian laws are not available in all the 22 languages listed in the eighth schedule. 

At a different point during the press conference, Chandrasekhar said that the inclusion of these languages has not been made mandatory in the amended rules but could mandate it if the need arose. However, the use of the word “shall” in the amended rules for the languages means that they are mandatory. 

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