The centre’s new IT rules, which aim to bring digital news publishers and OTT platforms under the same rules as traditional media, not only affect freedom of expression, but also have a deterrent effect on digital news media, especially the smaller according to senior journalists and digital rights activists.
“One of the big changes in the last 15 years is that the mainstream media has been challenged by the new voices on the Internet, which are basically smaller businesses,” said R Jagannathan, editor-in-chief, Swarajya, adding If the government wants to have a supervisory company or develop a legal protection mechanism for these companies, the rules will again be restricted only to rich people who can afford a whole range of officials to deal with the bureaucrats. “
He spoke on Thursday at a webinar on “Digital Content Rights and Regulation: A Practical Approach” organized by the Chennai International Center (CIC).
On Thursday, the central government announced the rules for information technology (interim guidelines and code of ethics for digital media) of 2021. According to the new IT rules, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have to identify the originator of a message that is viewed by the authorities as anti-national and against the security and sovereignty of the country. In addition, OTT platforms must themselves classify content on their platforms according to five age-dependent categories.
Jagannathan added that while the government’s intention to curb fake news or child pornography is laudable, the way the state does it will be a “disaster”.
Girish Srivatsava, public policy and strategy expert, ex-Nasscom, Indian Broadcasting Foundation and host of the webinar, said one of the top concerns of social media companies will be to break the promise of end-to-end encryption, to identify the first originator of the information, misinformation, possibly disinformation.
Journalist and digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa said that while the right to privacy is not absolute, forcing a change in the architecture of the technology platform could fundamentally jeopardize the privacy of everyone who uses that platform.
“While the government’s concern is understandable, the problem is that you cannot increase people’s safety by making the platform more vulnerable,” added Pahwa, who is also the founder of Medianama.
Three-stage regulatory mechanism
The new IT rules also stipulate a three-stage mechanism for regulating all online media content. While the first level of the regulatory mechanism is at company level, the second level involves the Indian press regulators, which are similar to the press council. The third stage will include an inter-ministerial committee. It is headed by a joint secretary from the I&B ministry.
KR Sreenivas, former Resident Editor (TOI) and editor (research) of the Daily Thanthi Group, said that all news sites are already under the purview of the Press Council of India and there is no need to create a separate set of rules to govern them .
He added that if the government wants to reduce content at all (in the interests of India’s security and sovereignty, etc.) it can direct the removal through the India Press Council, which is run by experienced editors.
Ankit Sahni, intellectual property attorney and TMT, said that pre-checking the contents of a private institution will be detrimental to the actual structure of democracy. All offenses mentioned in offensive content are already enshrined in law.
“It should be carried out by a court, rather than a private party or individual, where there is always the possibility of abuse and restriction of fundamental rights by one private entity against another, which is worse than a state or court that does does, “added Sahni.