New IT Act Amendment To Make Online Content Screening Possible by January 2020

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The Indian Government is in the process of considering amendments to the 2011 Intermediary Guidelines of Section 79 of the IT Act.

The proposed amendments deal with the concern of malicious, incorrect, and unlawful content on the internet, according to Sanjay Dhotre, Minister of State for Electronics and IT who relayed the amendments to the Rajya Sabha on Thursday.

One of the main provisions of the current Intermediary Guidelines of the IT Act mandates intermediaries – social media platforms and messaging platforms primality – to provide clear cut guidelines to its users about the kind of content they can post/circulate on the platform. These regulations restrict the circulation of fake news, inappropriate/obscene content, copyrighted content, and prejudiced or hateful content.

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The aforementioned amendments seek to take regulation of unlawful content even further. If adopted, intermediaries will be required to periodically remind users of the guidelines, urging them to comply with them.

Additionally, the government is pushing for the traceability of posters of content deemed unlawful in order to make the process of taking down inappropriate content swifter. The intermediaries will be required to take down content within 24 hours of receiving a notice from the Supreme Court.

This proposal to make it compulsory for tech companies to provide traceability of its users is highly controversial and has sparked considerable opposition from big tech companies like Facebook.

The amendments also seek to make it mandatory for companies with over 50 lac users to have regional offices in India for the purpose of monitoring content.

Where it all started

The idea of adding such a provision to the Act surfaced sometime last year when the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) released a draft proposing amendments to the IT Act. The amendments prescribed increased surveillance and filtering of social media content. However, they were proposed without any consultation with the public and its representatives.

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Later, in October this year, Rajiv Kumar, the secretary of MeitY submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court urging it to act on previous promises made to amend the Intermediary Guidelines Rules, 2011.

This led to a Supreme Court hearing, in which one of the main focal points was urging WhatsApp to allow decryption of its messages for regulatory purposes of the Indian Government, which Facebook global executive Nick Clegg had already refused to in a hearing back in September 2019.

In the same Supreme Court hearing, the Union was given a time frame of three months to come up with new regulatory amendments for the Intermediary Guidelines.

Keeping these developments in mind, Indians should expect at least a part of the proposed amendments to come into effect by January 2020. As mentioned above, these amendments are controversial and pose a massive ethical question regarding the extent of government sovereignty. It will be interesting to see where big tech companies such as Facebook will stand on the matter, considering their current adamancy to protect user data.

The amendments And the Data Protection Bill

Another related development in the information technology sphere of the Indian Government is the possibility of the Data Protection Bill to finally be discussed in the winter session of the Parliament.

This bill has come under scrutiny by citizens for being more self-serving than dedicated to the protection of the citizens’ data.

It is being seen as the Indian Government’s attempt to capitalize on user data highlighted by propositions such as mandatory local storage of citizens’ data and providing the government complete authority to monitor citizen data if seen necessary.

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