India: Massive overhaul of digital regulation, with strict rules for take-down of illegal content and Automated scanning of online content
On February 25, the Indian Government notified and published Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. These rules mirror the Digital Services Act (DSA) proposal of the EU to some extent, since they propose a tiered approach based on the scale of the platform, they touch on intermediary liability, content moderation, take-down of illegal content from online platforms, as well as internal accountability and oversight mechanisms, but they go beyond such rules by adding a Code of Ethics for digital media, similar to the Code of Ethics classic journalistic outlets must follow, and by proposing an “online content” labelling scheme for content that is safe for children.
The Code of Ethics applies to online news publishers, as well as intermediaries that “enable the transmission of news and current affairs”. This part of the Guidelines (the Code of Ethics) has already been challenged in the Delhi High Court by news publishers this week.
The Guidelines have raised several types of concerns in India, from their impact on freedom of expression, impact on the right to privacy through the automated scanning of content and the imposed traceability of even end-to-end encrypted messages so that the originator can be identified, to the choice of the Government to use executive action for such profound changes. The Government, through the two Ministries involved in the process, is scheduled to testify in the Standing Committee of Information Technology of the Parliament on March 15.
New obligations for intermediaries
“Intermediaries” include “websites, apps and portals of social media networks, media sharing websites, blogs, online discussion forums, and other such functionally similar intermediaries” (as defined in rule 2(1)(m)).
Here are some of the most important rules laid out in Part II of the Guidelines, dedicated to Due Diligence by Intermediaries:
- All intermediaries, regardless of size or nature, will be under an obligation to “remove or disable access” as early as possible and no later than 36 hours of content subject to a Court order or an order of a Government agency (see rule 4(1)(d)).
- All intermediaries will be under an obligation to inform users at least once per year about their content policies, which must at a minimum include rules such as not uploading, storing or sharing information that “belongs to another person and to which the user does not have any right”, “deceives or misleads the addressee about the origin of the message”, “is patently false and untrue” or “is harmful to minors” (see rules 4(1)(b) and (f)).
- All intermediaries will have to provide information to authorities for the purpose of identity verification and for investigating and prosecuting offenses, within 72 hours of receiving an order from an authorised government agency (see rule 4(1)(j)).
- All intermediaries will have to take all measures to remove or limit access within 24 hours of receiving a complaint from a user, to any content that reveals nudity, amounts to sexual harassment, or represents a deep fake, and the content is transmitted with the intent to harass, intimidate, threaten or abuse an individual (see rule 4(1)(p)).
“Significant social media intermediaries” have enhanced obligations
“Significant social media intermediaries” are social media services with a number of users above a threshold which will be defined and notified by the Central Government. This concept is similar to the the DSA’s “Very Large Online Platform”, however the DSA includes clear criteria in the proposed act itself on how to identify a VLOP.
As for Significant Social Media Intermediaries” in India, they will have additional obligations (similar to how the DSA proposal in the EU scales obligations):
- “Significant social media intermediaries” that provide messaging services will be under an obligation to identify the “first originator” of a message following a Court order or an order from a Competent Authority (see rule 5(2)). This provision raises significant concerns over end-to-end encryption and encryption backdoors.
- They will have to appoint a Chief Compliance Officer for the purposes of complying with these rules and who will be liable for failing to ensure that the intermediary observes due diligence obligations; the CCO will have to hold an Indian passport and will have to be based in India;
- They will have to appoint a Chief Grievance Officer, who also must be based in India.
- Publish compliance reports every 6 months.
- Deploy automated scanning to proactively identify all identical information to content removed following an order (under the 36 hours rule), as well as child sexual abuse and related content (see rule 5(4)).
- Set up an internal mechanism for receiving complaints.
These “Guidelines” seem to have the legal effect of a statute, and they are being adopted through executive action to replace Guidelines adopted in 2011 by the Government, under powers conferred to it in the Information Technology Act 2000. The new Guidelines would enter into force immediately after publication in the Official Gazette (no information as to when publication is scheduled). The Code of Ethics would enter into force three months after the publication in the Official Gazette. As mentioned above, there are already some challenges in Court against part of these rules.
Get smart on these issues and their impact
Check out these resources:
- This article by Malavika Raghavan in The Indian Express, “For more online civility, we will need deeper engagement, careful legislation”, where she raises concerns of having such profound changes brought by executive action rather than a broader public engagement and legislative action.
- This analysis by Rahul Matthan, who raises questions with regard to “identifying the first originator” rule, arguing that it is likely the Indian Supreme Court would declare such a measure unconstitutional: “Traceability is Antithetical to Liberty”.
Another jurisdiction to keep your eyes on: Australia
Also note that, while the European Union is starting its heavy and slow legislative machine, by appointing Rapporteurs in the European Parliament and having first discussions on the DSA proposal in the relevant working group of the Council, another country is set to soon adopt digital content rules: Australia. The Government is currently considering an Online Safety Bill, which was open to public consultation until mid February and which would also include a “modernised online content scheme”, creating new classes of harmful online content, as well as take-down requirements for image-based abuse, cyber abuse and harmful content online, requiring removal within 24 hours of receiving a notice from the eSafety Commissioner.
If you have any questions about engaging with The Future of Privacy Forum on Global Privacy and Digital Policymaking contact Dr. Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna, Senior Counsel, at [email protected]