Given the kind of powers Big Tech firms like Twitter have in deciding whose accounts will be suspended or which tweets will be flagged/deleted, or the role of a Parler in the Capitol siege in the US, it is hardly surprising that, after years of discussion, the government has finally come out with its Information Technology.
(Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules that seek to address some of these issues. Indeed, the refusal of messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, or Blackberry in the past, to help trace specific messages – like, say, those between terrorists or those trying to incite communal tension – is also something the new rules attempt to address
In doing so, however, the government appears to have given itself too many powers; and given how open-ended the definition of the illegal content is – ranging from being defamatory to threatening ‘public order’ or violating ‘decency’ or ‘morality’ – the chances of abuse cannot be ruled out. Few would, for instance, argue that sedition is not a severe crime, but, in the past, people have been arrested under this law for just lampooning politicians.
Asking an ‘intermediary’ to remove content based on the court order is one thing since a judicial process has been gone through. Still, even demand from “the appropriate Government or its agency” is considered good enough under the new laws. Asking intermediaries to appoint compliance and grievance redressal officers is a good movie. The government has done well to say that it does not want firms to disclose the content of messages but wants them to help identify.
Where the message originated from; though, even if you assume it is technically possible to track a message without opening its contents, this is a provision that can be abused if not used carefully. Asking social media intermediaries, like Facebook or Twitter, to ‘proactively identify’ and block the reposting of a certain kind of content that has been banned before – like, say, the video of the Christchurch mosque shooting in 2019 – is probably a good idea.