India’s new Intermediary & Digital Media Rules: Expanding the Boundaries of Executive Power in Digital Regulation
Author: Malavika Raghavan
India’s new rules on intermediary liability and regulation of publishers of digital content have generated significant debate since their release in February 2021. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (the Rules) have:
- recast the conditions to obtain ‘safe harbour’ from liability for online intermediaries, and
- unveiled an extensive regulatory regime for a newly defined category of online ‘publishers’, which includes digital news media and Over-The-Top (OTT) services.
The majority of these provisions were unanticipated, resulting in a raft of petitions filed in High Courts across the country challenging the validity of the various aspects of the Rules, including with regard to their constitutionality. On 25 May 2021, the three month compliance period on some new requirements for significant social media intermediaries (so designated by the Rules) expired, without many intermediaries being in compliance opening them up to liability under the Information Technology Act as well as wider civil and criminal laws. This has reignited debates about the impact of the Rules on business continuity and liability, citizens’ access to online services, privacy and security.
Following on FPF’s previous blog highlighting some aspects of these Rules, this article presents an overview of the Rules before deep-diving into critical issues regarding their interpretation and application in India. It concludes by taking stock of some of the emerging effects of these new regulations, which have major implications for millions of Indian users, as well as digital services providers serving the Indian market.
1. Brief overview of the Rules: Two new regimes for ‘intermediaries’ and ‘publishers’
The new Rules create two regimes for two different categories of entities: ‘intermediaries’ and ‘publishers’. Intermediaries have been the subject of prior regulations – the Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011 (the 2011 Rules), now superseded by these Rules. However, the category of “publishers” and related regime created by these Rules did not previously exist.
The Rules begin with commencement provisions and definitions in Part I. Part II of the Rules apply to intermediaries (as defined in the Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act)) who transmit electronic records on behalf of others, and includes online intermediary platforms (like Youtube, Whatsapp, Facebook). The rules in this part primarily flesh out the protections offered in Section 79 of India’s Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act), which give passive intermediaries the benefit of a ‘safe harbour’ from liability for objectionable information shared by third parties using their services — somewhat akin to protections under section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act. To claim this protection from liability, intermediaries need to undertake certain ‘due diligence’ measures, including informing users of the types of content that could not be shared, and content take-down procedures (for which safeguards evolved overtime through important case law). The new Rules supersede the 2011 Rules and also significantly expand on them, introducing new provisions and additional due diligence requirements that are detailed further in this blog.
Part III of the Rules apply to a new previously non-existent category of entities designated to be ‘publishers‘. This is further classified into subcategories of ‘publishers of news and current affairs content’ and ‘publishers of online curated content’. Part III then sets up extensive requirements for publishers to adhere to specific codes of ethics, onerous content take-down requirements and three-tier grievance process with appeals lying to an Executive Inter-Departmental Committee of Central Government bureaucrats.
Finally, the Rules contain two provisions that apply to all entities (i.e. intermediaries and publishers) relating to content-blocking orders. They lay out a new process by which Central Government officials can issue directions to delete, modify or block content to intermediaries and publishers, either following a grievance process (Rule 15) or including procedures of “emergency” blocking orders which may be passed ex-parte. These Rules stem from powers to issue directions to intermediaries to block public access of any information through any computer resource (Section 69A of the IT Act). Interestingly, these provisions have been introduced separately from the existing rules for blocking purposes called the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009.
2. Key issues for intermediaries under the Rules
2.1 A new class of ‘social media intermediaries‘
The term ‘intermediary’ is a broadly defined term in the IT Act covering a range of entities involved in the transmission of electronic records. The Rules introduce two new sub-categories, being:
- “social media intermediary” defined (in Rule 2(w)) as one who “primarily or solely enables online interaction between two or more users and allows them” to exchange information; and
- “significant social media intermediary” (SSMI) comprising social media intermediaries with more than five million registered users in India (following this Government notification of the threshold).
Given that a popular messaging app like Whatsapp has over 400 million users in India, the threshold appears to be fairly conservative. The Government may order any intermediary to comply with the same obligations as SSMIs (under Rule 6) if their services are adjudged to pose a risk of harm to national security, the sovereignty and integrity of India, India’s foreign relations or to public order.
SSMIs have to follow substantially more onerous “additional due diligence” requirements to claim the intermediary safe harbour (including mandatory traceability of message originators, and proactive automated screening as discussed below). These new requirements raise privacy concerns and data security concerns, as they extend beyond the traditional ideas of platform “due diligence”, they potentially expose content of private communications and in doing so create new privacy risks for users in India.
2.2 Additional requirements for SSMIS: resident employees, mandated message traceability, automated content screening
Extensive new requirements are set out in the new Rule 4 for SSMIs.
- In-country employees: SSMIs must appoint in-country employees as (1) Chief Compliance Officer, (2) a nodal contact person for 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and (3) a Resident Grievance Officer specifically responsible for overseeing the internal grievance redress mechanism. Monthly reporting of complaints management is also mandated.
- Traceability requirements for SSMIs providing messaging services: Among the most controversial requirements is Rule 4(2) which requires SSMIs providing messaging services to enable the identification of the “first originator” of information on their platforms as required by Government or court orders. This tracing and identification of users is considered incompatible with end-to-end encryption technology employed by messaging applications like Whatsapp and Signal. In their legal challenge to this Rule, Whatsapp has noted that end-to-end encrypted platforms would need to be re-engineered to identify all users since there is no way to predict which user will be the subject of an order seeking first originator information.
Provisions to mandate modifications to the technical design of encrypted platforms to enable traceability seem to go beyond merely requiring intermediary due diligence. Instead they appear to draw on separate Government powers relating to interception and decryption of information (under Section 69 of the IT Act). In addition, separate stand-alone rules laying out procedures and safeguards for such interception and decryption orders already exist in the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. Rule 4(2) even acknowledges these provisions–raising the question of whether these Rules (relating to intermediaries and their safe harbours) can be used to expand the scope of section 69 or rules thereunder.
Proceedings initiated by Whatsapp LLC in the Delhi High Court, and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) developer Praveen Arimbrathodiyil in the Kerala High Court have both challenged the legality and validity of Rule 4(2) on grounds including that they are ultra vires and go beyond the scope of their parent statutory provisions (s. 79 and 69A) and the intent of the IT Act itself. Substantively, the provision is also challenged on the basis that it would violate users’ fundamental rights including the right to privacy, and the right to free speech and expression due to the chilling effect that the stripping back of encryption will have.
- Automated content screening: Rule 4(4) mandates that SSMIs must employ technology-based measures including automated tools to proactively identify information depicting (i) rape, child sexual abuse or conduct, or (ii) any information previousy removed following a Government or court order. The latter category is very expansive and allows content take-downs for a broad range of reasons including defamatory or pornographic content, to IP infringements, to content threatening national security or public order (as set out in Rule 3(1)(d)).
Though the objective of the provision is laudable (i.e. to limit the circulation of violent or previously removed content), the move towards proactive automated monitoring has raised serious concerns regarding censorship on social media platforms. Rule 4(4) appears to acknowledge the deep tensions that this requirement raises with privacy and free speech concerns, as seen by the provisions that require these screening measures to be proportionate to the free speech and privacy of users, to be subject to human oversight, and reviews of automated tools to assess fairness, accuracy, propensity for bias or discrimination, and impact on privacy and security. However, given the vagueness of this wording compared to the trade-off of losing intermediary immunity, scholars and commentators are noting the obvious potential for ‘over-compliance’ and excessive screening out of content. Many (including the petitioner in the Praveen Arimbrathodiyil matter) have also noted that automated filters are not sophisticated enough to differentiate between violent unlawful images and legitimate journalistic material. The concern is that such measures could create a large-scale screening out of ‘valid’ speech and expression, with serious consequences for constitutional rights to free speech and expression which also protect ‘the rights of individuals to listen, read and receive the said speech‘ (Tata Press Ltd v. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, (1995) 5 SCC 139).
Such requirements appear to be aimed at creating more user-friendly networks of intermediaries. However, the imposition of a single set of requirements is especially onerous for smaller or volunteer-run intermediary platforms which may not have income streams or staff to provide for such a mechanism. Indeed, the petition in the Praveen Arimbrathodiyil matter has challenged certain of these requirements as being a threat to the future of the volunteer-led Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement in India, by placing similar requirements on small FOSS initiatives as on large proprietary Big Tech intermediaries.
Other obligations that stipulate turn-around times for intermediaries include (i) a requirement to remove or disable access to content within 36 hours of receipt of a Government or court order relating the unlawful information on the intermediary’s computer resources (under Rule 3(1)(d)) and (ii) to provide information within 72 hours of receiving an order from a authorised Government agency undertaking investigative activity (under Rule 3(1)(j).
Similar to the concerns with automated screening, there are concerns that the new grievance process could lead to private entities becoming the arbiters of appropriate content/ free speech — a position that was specifically reversed in a seminal 2015 Supreme Court decision that clarified that a Government or Court order was needed for content-takedowns.
3. Key issues for the new ‘publishers’ subject to the Rules, including OTT players
3.1 New Codes of Ethics and three-tier redress and oversight system for digital news media and OTT players
Digital news media and OTT players have been designated as ‘publishers of news and current affairs content’ and ‘publishers of online curated content’ respectively in Part III of the Rules. Each category has been then subjected to separate Codes of Ethics. In the case of digital news media, the Codes applicable to the newspapers and cable television have been applied. For OTT players, the Appendix sets out principles regarding content that can be created and display classifications. To enforce these codes and to address grievances from the public on their content, publishers are now mandated to set up a grievance system which will be the first tier of a three-tier “appellate” system culminating in an oversight mechanism by the Central Government with extensive powers of sanction.
At least five legal challenges have been filed in various High Courts challenging the competence and authority of the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) to pass the Rules and their validity namely (i) in the Kerala High Court, LiveLaw Media Private Limited vs Union of India WP(C) 6272/2021; in the Delhi High Court, three petitions tagged together being (ii) Foundation for Independent Journalism vs Union of India WP(C) 3125/2021, (iii) Quint Digital Media Limited vs Union of India WP(C)11097/2021, and (iv) Sanjay Kumar Singh vs Union of India and others WP(C) 3483/2021, and (v) in the Karnataka High Court, Truth Pro Foundation of India vs Union of India and others, W.P. 6491/2021. This is in addition to a fresh petition filed on 10 June 2021, in TM Krishna vs Union of India that is challenging the entirety of the Rules (both Part II and III) on the basis that they violate rights of free speech (in Article 19 of the Constitution), privacy (including in Article 21 of the Constitution) and that it fails the test of arbitrariness (under Article 14) as it is manifestly arbitrary and falls foul of principles of delegation of powers.
Some of the key issues emerging from these Rules in Part III and the challenges to them are highlighted below.
3.2 Lack of legal authority and competence to create these Rules
There has been substantial debate on the lack of clarity regarding the legal authority of the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) under the IT Act. These concerns arise at various levels.
- Authority and competence to regulate ‘publishers’ of original content is unclear: The definition of ‘intermediary’ in the IT Act does not extend to cover types of entities defined to be publishers. The Rules themselves acknowledge that ‘publishers’ are a new category of regulated entity created by the Rules, as opposed to a sub-category of intermediaries. Further, the commencement of the Rules also confirm that they are passed under statutory provisions in the IT Act related to intermediary regulation. It is a well established principle that subordinate rules cannot go beyond the object and scope of parent statutory provisions (Ajoy Kumar Banerjee v Union of India (1984) 3 SCC 127). Consequently, the authority of MeitY to regulate entities that create original content – like online news sources and OTT platforms – remains unclear at best.
- Ability to extend substantive provisions in other statutes through the Rules: The Rules apply two codes of conduct to digital publishers of news and current affairs content, namely (i) the Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India under the Press Council Act, 1978; (ii) Programme Code under section 5 of the Cable Television Networks Regulation) Act, 1995. Many, including petitioners in the LiveLaw matter have noted that the power to make Rules under the IT Act’s s 87 cannot be used to extend or expand requirements under other statutes and their subordinate rules. To bring digital news media or OTT players into existing regulatory regimes for the Press and television broadcasting, amendments to those regimes will be required led by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
- Validity of three-tier ‘quasi-judicial’ adjudicatory mechanism, with final appeal to Committee of solely executive functionaries: Rules 11 – 14 create a three-tier grievance and oversight system which can be used by any person with a grievance against content published by any publisher. Under this model, any person having a grievance with any material published by a publisher can complain through the publisher’s redress process. If any grievance is not satisfactorily dealt with by the publisher entity (Level I) in 15 days, it will be escalated to the self regulatory body of which the publisher is a member (Level II) which must also provide a decision to the complainant within 15 days. If the complainant is unsatisfied, they may appeal to the Oversight Mechanism (in Level III). This can be appreciated as an attempt to create feedback loops that can minimise the spread of misleading or incendiary media, disinformation etc through a more effective grievance mechanism. The structure and design of the three-tier structure have however raised specific concerns.
First, there is a concern that Level I & II result in a privatisation of adjudications relating to free speech and expression of creative content producers – which would otherwise be litigated in Courts and Tribunals as matters of free speech. As noted by many (including the LiveLaw petition at page 33), this could have the effect of overturning judicial precedent in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India ((2013) 12 S.C.C. 73) that specifically read down s 79 of the IT Act to avoid a situation where private entities were the arbiters determining the legitimacy of takedown orders. Second, despite referring to “self-regulation” this system is subject to executive oversight (unlike the existing models for offline newspapers and broadcasting).
The Inter-Departmental Committee is entirely composed of Central Government bureaucrats, and it may review complaints through the three-tier system or referred directly by the Ministry following which it can deploy a range of sanctions from warnings, to mandating apologies, to deleting, modifying or blocking content. This also raises the question of whether this Committee meets the legal requirements for any administrative body undertaking a ‘quasi-judicial’ function, especially one that may adjudicate on matters of rights relating to free speech and privacy. Finally, while the objective of creating some standards and codes for such content creators may be laudable it is unclear whether such an extensive oversight mechanism with powers of sanction on online publishers can be validly created under the rubric of intermediary liability provisions.
4. New powers to delete, modify or block information for public access
As described at the start of this blog, the Rules add new powers for the deletion, modification and blocking of content from intermediaries and publishers. While section 69A of the IT Act (and Rules thereunder) do include blocking powers for Government, they only exist vis a vis intermediaries. Rule 15 also expands this power to ‘publishers’. It also provides a new avenue for such orders to intermediaries, outside of the existing rules for blocking information under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009.
More grave concerns arise from Rule 16 which allows for the passing of emergency orders for blocking information, including without giving an opportunity of hearing for publishers or intermediaries. There is a provision for such an order to be reviewed by the Inter-Departmental Committee within 2 days of its issue.
Both Rule 15 and 16 apply to all entities contemplated in the Rules. Accordingly, they greatly expand executive power and oversight over digital media services in India, including social media, digital news media and OTT on-demand services.
5. Conclusions and future implications
The new Rules in India have opened up deep questions for online intermediaries and providers of digital media services serving the Indian market.
For intermediaries, this creates a difficult and even existential choice: the requirements, (especially relating to traceability and automated screening) appear to set an improbably high bar given the reality of their technical systems. However, failure to comply will result in not only the loss of a safe harbour from liability — but as seen in new Rule 7, also opens them up to punishment under the IT Act and criminal law in India.
For digital news and OTT players, the consequences of non-compliance and the level of enforcement remain to be understood, especially given open questions regarding the validity of legal basis to create these rules. Given the numerous petitions filed against these Rules, there is also substantial uncertainty now regarding the future although the Rules themselves have the full force of law at present.
Overall, it does appear that attempts to create a ‘digital media’ watchdog would be better dealt with in a standalone legislation, potentially sponsored by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) which has the traditional remit over such areas. Indeed, the administration of Part III of the Rules has been delegated by MeitY to MIB pointing to the genuine split in competence between these Ministries.
Finally, the potential overlaps with India’s proposed Personal Data Protection Bill (if passed) also create tensions in the future. It remains to be seen if the provisions on traceability will survive the test of constitutional validity set out in India’s privacy judgement (Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1). Irrespective of this determination, the Rules appear to have some dissonance with the data retention and data minimisation requirements seen in the last draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill, not to mention other obligations relating to Privacy by Design and data security safeguards. Interestingly, despite the Bill’s release in December 2019, a definition for ‘social media intermediary’ that it included in an explanatory clause to its section 26(4) closely track the definition in Rule 2(w), but also departs from it by carving out certain intermediaries from the definition. This is already resulting in moves such as Google’s plea on 2 June 2021 in the Delhi High Court asking for protection from being declared a social media intermediary.
These new Rules have exhumed the inherent tensions that exist within the realm of digital regulation between goals of the freedom of speech and expression, and the right to privacy and competing governance objectives of law enforcement (such as limiting the circulation of violent, harmful or criminal content online) and national security. The ultimate legal effect of these Rules will be determined as much by the outcome of the various petitions challenging their validity, as by the enforcement challenges raised by casting such a wide net that covers millions of users and thousands of entities, who are all engaged in creating India’s growing digital public sphere.
Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
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